Toying with people's power
Democracy grants citizens the right to vote and with that power, citizens become the most important feature of any democratic government. Anything to everything that the government does is assumed to be in the benefit of the people. Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as the government of the people, by the people and for the people with the root word in Greek itself citing "rule by the people". But with the latest Bill floated in the Lower House of Parliament, there is a sense of irony prevailing on the government's part. The RTI (Amendment) Bill, 2019 was introduced with the objective to strengthen and streamline the RTI Act, 2005. But, with details of the proposed amendments along with reasons for such an amendment bill as forwarded by the government, the objective somewhat gets diluted. RTI Act has perhaps been the biggest boon for the citizenry of this nation. It gave them the medium to know and question those in power without any barrier preventing the revelation of any information not disclosed by the government. Immeasurable good has resulted from such legislation and that may have in itself acted as a strong deterrent for government officials in withholding any information–let alone the one people seek. It is, therefore, to the existence of RTI that citizens can take the necessary step to criticise the government based on information reflecting its performance across different parameters and pertinent issues. It cannot be surprising that this pro-democratic tool has also prevented the country from functioning in the traditional way where the outright belief highlighted that the less public knows, the better it is. And, this may not have been as sound as it seems for everyone. For those who continue to possess something to conceal, RTI will always be a dangerous trump card in the common man's pocket. Given the purview that RTI exercises and the social good it has done for society, steps to strengthen it should be in the direction of increasing its reach and cementing its implementation. Those are the ideal amendments. But the version of amendments that the government presented were far from those. They elaborated on the tenure, salary, and posting of personnel working to uphold the RTI Act. Information Commissioners, both state and Central, as well as Chief Information Commissioner will be subject to the government's discretion over the length of their tenures and their salaries. Against the earlier rule of a fixed five-year tenure and salary as that of the Election Commissioner–or Chief Election Commissioner in case of Chief Information Commissioner–this new amendment leaves the decision on the government's whims. By stating that the terms and salaries of state and Central Information Commissioners, Information Officers as well as the Chief Information Commissioner, the government, through RTI (Amendment) Bill 2019, seeks to undermine the independence of a statutory body. This is a violation of the very cause that gave birth to RTI. Information Commissions were set up to perform the sacrosanct task of functioning independently while processing information desired by the people, especially without any interference from the government. If what government wants is passed then it would not be surprising if Information Commissioners are transferred or their tenure curtailed in case of any particular matter involving the government itself doing rounds of the judiciary. Against the ideal amendments, controlling officers and commissioners posted under the Information Commission is not representative of a substantial amendment. The government argues–through the Statement of Objects and Reasons of RTI (Amendment) Bill, 2019–that functions being carried out by the Election Commission of India and the Information Commission are totally different. It cites that because ECI comes under Article 324 of the Indian Constitution serving a special purpose of conducting elections, it is different from Information Commissions, both state and Central, which are statutory bodies under RTI Act, 2005. The government concludes that since the mandate of ECI and IC are different hence their status and service conditions need not be rationalised accordingly. Even if the government summarised their summary, laymen may still be unable to see how it strengthens the RTI Act and not grant powers to government in a bid to control these independent commissions.
It must be recalled that this Bill was not tabled in the Lok Sabha despite being circulated amongst legislators due to protests from opposition leaders and RTI activists for particularly clear reasons for the amendment impinging on the freedom exercised by Information Commission in processing and furnishing requisite information to the public. In this context, it is hardly surprising that the very same protests were the order of the day when the Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha. Keen on getting the amendment passed in the Lower House, the government could have channelised the eagerness towards strengthening RTI's implementation say, filling vacancies in Information Commissions, addressing attacks on RTI activists or for that matter drafting a Whistleblower's Protection Act. Legislations ought to forecast the problem it pertains to address and reflect the change due to its presence but with this amendment Bill, both seem bleak.