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RIGHT TO INFORMATION (AMENDMENT) ACT: A STEP IN WRONG DIRECTION?

Author: Sagarika Swapnil, B.A, LL.B (Hons.) from Chanakya National Law University.

Co-author: Raj Krishna; LL.M. from NLIU Bhopal


INTRODUCTION

The Right to Information Act (hereafter referred to as the RTI Act) was amended on July 22, 2019, by the Lok Sabha, empowering the central governmentto determine the salary and service terms of the statutory body head and its members. A few days later, this amendment was also adopted by the Rajya Sabha.


It is pertinent to note that this Bill was initially introduced during the final session of the previous administration [NDA -1 (2014-2019)]. Nevertheless, this amendment was not carried out because of protests in the parliament over it.Nonetheless, the first legislative move of the new parliament after retaking office in 2019 was to introduce the RTI Amendment Act.It is important to remember that this change was submitted to the House without any kind of public input. An RTI request also discloses that neither the Right to Information Amendment Act, 2019 nor the Act's Regulations were developed with input from the Central Information Commission.

Furthermore, the RTI Amendment Act 2019 has drawn harsh criticism since it was passed because it jeopardises the independence of the Chief Information Commissioner and the Information Commissioners.


SALIENT FEATURES OF THE RIGHT TO INFORMATION (AMENDMENT) ACT, 2019

The RTI (Amendment) Act of 2019 modifies the criteria for appointing the Chief Information Commissioner (Centre) and Information Commissioners (State).The terms of the Chief Information Commissioners (CICs) and Information Commissioners (ICs) at the federal and state levels were set forth in Sections 13 and 16 of the Right to Information Act, 2005. The duration of the service of CICs and ICs was determined for the term of 5 years and up to the age of 65 in accordance with the Right to Information Act, 2005. The set term of five years for the chief information commissioner and information commissioners has been eliminated by the Amendment, nonetheless.


Additionally, the Central Government has amended Section 27 of the RTI Act, giving it the authority to manage the wages, benefits, and working conditions of the Information Commissioners at both the federal and state levels.As a result of the revision, it is no longer true that when appointed, if the Information Commissioners are receiving any retirement benefits for previous government employment, then their salary would be cut by an amount equal to the pension that they wouldreceive.


RIGHT TO INFORMATION (AMENDMENT) ACT: A CRITIQUE

The latest change dealt a serious blow to the office of the Chief Information Commissioner and other information commissioners' independence. It's because the government now has the authority to regulate both the CIC and IC's salaries and terms of appointment. The CIC and IC are now under the control of the current administration, thanks to the RTI (Amendment) Act, 2019. The amendment will make the officials more devoted to the governing party than to the people they are supposed to represent.


On the other side, the government claims that these revisions won't have an impact on the central information commission's independence or autonomy.According to the government, the original Act had some flaws that needed to be fixed. When submitting the Amendment Bill in the Parliament, Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office Shri Jitendra Singh stated: “This amendment has been submitted with a purpose to fix the anomalies in the RTI Act, 2005. The RTI Act did not provide the government more authority to make rules. By amending, we are only making thesefixes.”


WAY AHEAD

The Right to Information Act’s preamble talks about encouraging accountability and openness in each and every public authority's operation across the nation. But, by placing the independence of the Information Commissioners and the Chief Information Commissioner in the hands of the government, this amendment undermines the entire foundation of the RTI Act. Hence, the government's defence of the RTI amendment is in no way appropriate.


The only remaining option is to challenge this amendment to the Supreme Court. Hence, it is now up to the Supreme Court to assume its responsibility as the defender of constitutional principles and to invalidate this amendment for the benefit of the general people.

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