RTI activists are up in arms over the proposed amendments to the Right To Information Act, 2005, which are to be tabled in the monsoon session of the Parliament. They allege that the Centre has not followed the pre-legislative consultation policy framed in 2014. The policy that mandates the Centre put up the amendments for public consultation for 30 days has not been followed and hence must be withdrawn, say Hyderabad-based RTI activists.
On Tuesday, the draft bill of the proposed amendments started circulating on social media. Soon, RTI activists, who got access to the bill flagged objections as the proposed amendments were found to be “regressive” and “against federal structure”.
The Right to Information Act, 2005 aims to increase government transparency with the hope of increasing accountability in government functioning. The law mandates a timely response to citizen requests for official information.
The proposed amendments, however, if passed, would allow the Centre to decide on “salaries, allowances and other terms and conditions” of both Central and State Information Commissioners.
“The salaries, allowances and other terms and conditions of the Chief Information Commissioner and the Information Commissioners and the State Chief Information Commissioner and the State Information Commissioners shall be such as maybe prescribed by the Central Government,” reads the proposed amendment - a copy of which is now leaked online.
At present, the salaries of State Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners are paid for by the state. According to 13 (5) of the RTI Act 2015, the salaries and allowances payable to them will be similar to that of Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioner.
The amendments would also grant the Centre powers to determine the tenure of Central and State Commissioners. The law in its present form has already earmarked the salary criteria for the Information Commission.
Rakesh Reddy, co-convener for National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information in Hyderabad said, “The draft bill in its current form must be withdrawn. The proposed amendments are regressive and clip the wings of the Information Commissions. It takes away their autonomy and independence, paving way for government interference in judgements.”
A PRS legislative research paper points out that the draft bill when put up in the public domain for consultation “is to include a justification for its introduction, financial implications, estimated impact assessment and an explanatory note for key legal provisions. A summary of comments received is to be made available on the relevant Ministry’s website.”
Only then is the draft bill or amendment then sent for Cabinet approval and tabled in the Parliament.
Rakesh pointed out that this “due process” has not been followed. “They have not put up the Bill for public consultation and that is wrong. We need to educate our Members of Parliament and reach out to them. We have started a Change.org petition that has gathered 15,000 signatures so far. We will protest against this amendment.”
Presently, the Information Commissions of State and Centre are independent of each other but that would change once the amendment is passed. “Now the State governments should also be unhappy and agitated. If the Centre wants power over the Central Information Commission, the states could also demand control over the State Information Commissions,” Rakesh added.
The state RTI act in Telangana
At present, the Telangana State Information Commission has a mountain of backlog cases - over 16,000 including second appeals. Of the 16,000 odd cases, close to 8,500 are cases from Telangana alone, the rest belong to Andhra Pradesh as the cases are yet to be divided following bifurcation.
The Commission has just two officials working full time since September 2017 and have managed to pass judgements on 3,300 cases till July.
A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by the Forum For Good Governance calling for the appointment of four more Information Commissioners is yet to be taken up by the Andhra Pradesh and Telangana High Court.
The state RTI commission in AP
The Andhra Pradesh Information Commission moved their office and staff to Vijayawada in 2017. Though cases are being registered, no hearings take place.
“It's like setting up a High Court but with no judges to hear the cases,” said Padmanabha Reddy, founder of Forum for Good Governance, who had filed a contempt notice against the Andhra Pradesh state government in June for failing to set up an Information Commission.
The Information Commissioners are appointed by the Chief Minister, in cognizance with the Leader of Opposition. “The Andhra Pradesh government says they are unable to get the leader of the opposition on board to make a decision. In such a case the CM and the senior most leader in the cabinet can decide on appointments, so far three names have been decided but no government order confirming their appointments have come forth,” Padmanabhan added.