July 22, 2019
Saugata Roy opposes the The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019
Sir, I have to again perform the unpleasant task of opposing a Bill of the Government.
Sir, as you know, this Bill, The Right to Information Bill was enacted in Parliament in 2005 during the UPA regime. The Bill was brought after a report of the Standing Committee headed by Sudarshan Nachiappan of the Rajya Sabha. When speaking on the Information Commission he had said, ‘The Central Information Commission is an important creation under the Act which will execute the laudable scheme of the legislation … It should, therefore, be ensured that it functions with utmost independence and autonomy.’ These are the two key words, ‘independence’ and ‘autonomy’. The purpose of the Bill has been stated earlier.
The Bill has taken away the independence of the Central Information Commission by making the salaries and allowances of the Central Information Commissioner, Information Commissioners, State Information Commissioners and State Deputy Information Commissioners ‘as may be prescribed’ by the Central Government. Earlier it was equated with the Chief Election Commissioner and the State Election Commissioners, in order to give the Information Commission a high status which enabled it to criticise the Government.
The present Bill is a regressive Bill, in the sense that it wants to make the Information Commission a handmaiden of the Government. They can appoint when they like, they can end a term when they like, they can fix any salary as they like, they can fix any allowance as they like. The Government does not like a free Information Commission. The Government does not like it that the right to information be given to the people.
I would like to give credit to the thousands of right to information activists who have made launched campaign throughout the country and you will be surprised to know that, even though the Bill has been drafted, 20 million applications were filed under the Act till just 2017. You must be knowing Sir, that 83 RTI activists have been killed, 165 assaulted, and 180 harassed or threatened. People have given their lives just to uphold the right to information as given under this Act.
After this Amendment became public, unfortunately, they surreptitiously brought the Bill to the House. It is circulated in the night and the next day is introduced, and then gets passed. What is the great hurry in trying to get this Amendment passed? But there has been instant reaction. A newspaper, the largest circulated daily in India, The Times of India, said in its editorial that give up this Right to Information (Amendment) Bill. It is clear that there is no Standing Committee report on the Bill, there is no public consultation. The Government alone decided to dilute the power of the Information Commission.
Sir, I would also like to tell you that Sridhar Acharyulu, former Information Commissioner, has appealed to all the MPs to prevent the passing of the Bill. He said that this is an attempt by the Government to weaken the architecture. Sir, you also know that Shailesh Gandhi, another former Information Commissioner, has also opposed this Bill. Concerned RTI activists throughout the country have opposed this Bill but the Government is maintaining a stoic silence. The Prime Minister is telling the Minister of State to pass the Bill as they have majority in the Lok Sabha.
Some feel that it is because the RTI helped with the cross-verification of the affidavits of powerful electoral candidates with official documents and certain Information Commissioners having ruled in favour of disclosure. It is unlikely to be a set of instances but more the fact that the RTI is a constant challenge to the misuse of power. In a country where the rule of law hangs by a slender thread and corruption and the arbitrary use of power is a daily norm, the RTI has resulted in a fundamental shift — empowering a citizen’s access to power and decision-making. It has been a lifeline for many of the 40 to 60 lakh ordinary users, many of them for survival. It has also been a threat to arbitrariness, privilege, and corrupt governance. More than 80 RTI users have been murdered because their courage and determination using the RTI was a challenge to unaccountable power.
The RTI has been used brilliantly and persistently to ask a million questions across the spectrum — from the village ration shop, the Reserve Bank of India, the Finance Ministry, on demonetisation, non-performing assets, the Rafale fighter aircraft deal, electoral bonds, unemployment figures, the appointment of the Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC), Election Commissioners, and the (non)-appointment of the Information Commissioners themselves. This is a comment by Aruna Roy, who played a signal role in getting the RTI Act passed.
I continue with her. The RTI movement has struggled to access information and through it, a share of governance and democratic power. The Indian RTI law has been a breakthrough in creating mechanisms and platforms for the practice of continual public vigilance that are fundamental to democratic citizenship. The mostly unequal struggle to extract information from vested interests in government needed an institutional and legal mechanism which would not only be independent but also function with a transparency mandate and be empowered to override the traditional structures of secrecy and exclusive control. An independent Information Commission which is the highest authority on information along with the powers to penalise errant officials has been a cornerstone of India’s celebrated RTI legislation.
Sir, I end by pointing out the basic fallacy of the Government’s argument. Dr.Singh has said very fallaciously that when the Election Commission is a constitutional body and the Information Commission is a statutory body created by an Act of Parliament. I want to mention that a much more important constitutional provision is involved – Article 19(a) of the Constitution, which involves Fundamental Rights.
The Supreme Court proclaimed RTI as the constitutional right emanating from Article 19(1)(a) which guarantees freedom of speech and expression. That’s why the present Bill, the surreptitious effort of the Government to denude the Information Commission of the power to interfere in the rights of the State, to decide on the State Information Commission, taking away the independence and authority of the Information Commission is a retrograde step. I would appeal through you, Sir, to Dr Jitendra Singh, who is a decent man, that he should rise above party affiliation and throw down the gauntlet and say, I hereby withdraw the Bill.