The RTI act has probably been the most empowering and successful act of the country in recent times. But with the amendments that are being done, you could say that the act is headed towards its death bed, i.e. Rest in Peace (RIP).
HOW DOES RTI SYSTEM WORK?
To begin with, there is an Information Commission under the RTI Act – one at the state level and another at the Centre level. Information Commissioners sit under this Information Commission – one of them is Chief Information Commissioner. Their job is that whenever you file an RTI in any public office for any information and you don’t get a response to your RTI, in such a case, you can approach these RTI officers and complain about the non-responsiveness to your RTI. They have the authority to go to these public departments and instruct them to provide information.
In fact, they can help with various other issues. For instance, if you are being overcharged for an RTI or your RTI is not being responded properly, then you can approach the Information Commissioners and complain about all these situations.
To ensure the independence of these Information Commissioners, they have a fixed tenure of 5 years with a fixed salary that can be compared to the Election Commissioner. There is a Chief Election Commissioner whose salary and tenure is fixed. Similarly, there is a Chief Information Commissioner whose salary and tenure is fixed. And, the other Information Commissioners are akin to the other Election Commissioners. Just as the Election Commission is an independent body, the independence of the Information Commission is also essential.
Obviously, you can understand it yourself, that if they start working under the government, would they help in giving out information?
If they act as a government servant, they can directly refuse to provide information or won’t accept your complaints.
THE RTI AMENDMENT
Section 13 of the RTI Act decided the salary and tenure of these Information Commissioners. After this amendment, it is being said that their salaries, allowances and tenure will be as prescribed by the Central government.
The second change is in Section 16, which states the salaries, allowances and tenure of the State Information Commissioners too will be decided by the Central government.
This amendment was first passed in the Lok Sabha and later on, 25th July was passed in the Rajya Sabha.
Several people had opined that it wouldn’t be passed in Rajya Sabha as the BJP doesn’t have a majority there. But the BJD (Biju Janata Dal) and TRS (Telangana Rashtra Samithi) parties came forward in support of BJP and made this possible.
Therefore, the BJP along with BJD and TRS are to be blamed equally for passing this amendment.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN NOW? (Opinion)
The independence of the Information Commissioners would be completely taken away. How?
The best example of this would be our police – police dances to the tunes of the politicians. Have you ever wondered why this happens?
This happens because if any police officer ever takes action against a politician, then he is transferred. He is transferred because the politicians have this power. Many people say that we need to bring in police reforms to fix the tenure of the police officers. This is possible only because the tenure is not fixed and the politicians get to decide their tenure and transfer orders.
The same would now happen with the Information Commissioners.
Just as the government controls the police, now it would control the ICs.
While saying R.I.P to the RTI Act, I would like to remind you that in the past 10-15 years, this act has probably been the most successful and powerful in our country.
It was brought in under the UPA1 government and ironically, this was the same reason behind the collapsing the UPA government.
Due to the RTI Act, we got to know about the ₹ 70,000 crore Commonwealth scam, 2G Spectrum Scam and how much currency came back into banks post demonetization.
This was the main reason behind the several corruption scams.
In 2006, Arvind Kejriwal won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for RTI. He said, “Right to information has emerged as an extremely powerful tool in the hands of most ordinary people to fight injustice and corruption. It has given voice to the voiceless. It has led to honest officers being protected and the corrupt ones being prosecuted, but most important of all, it has led to people of India to feel empowered – Empowered to stand up and demand answers from the government.”
PM NARENDRA MODI’S DEGREE CASE
A question would arise in your minds that what is it that the RTI has done due to which the government wants to bring these amendments.
There are a lot of things under the RTI act that would have made the government uncomfortable.
The first is the degree of our Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In 2015, an RTI activist Neeraj Sharma filed an RTI in the Delhi University to find out the people who passed out as a graduate in Bachelors of Arts in 1978 in DU – their roll numbers, names, other details and marks in different subjects.
The DU refused to provide this information, the RTI activist then approached the Information Commissioner. After taking a few months, the information Commissioner ruled that the information should be given out. The Information Commissioner demanded the DU to divulge this information. The DU says it has no data of students passing out in 1978 and later the prestigious university revealed on their own that the Prime Minister’s records have been maintained and he received BA degree from DU in 1978. But they refused to give out the information.
To defend them, the DU approached the High Court. The case is still ongoing in Delhi High Court that upon the order of Information Commissioner, should DU divulge information in public or not?
Now you can understand as to why the government is so agitated.
Recently, there was another case where somebody filed an RTI to the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) seeking the public release of names of the NPAs (non-performing assets) and the defaulters who hadn’t repaid their loans.
The RBI rejected the activist’s query, then, again he went to the Information Commission and IC again told the RBI to reveal the information publicly. But the RBI didn’t and approached the court where this case is still pending.
MORE ATTACKS ON RTI
The most unfortunate fact is that this is not the first attack of the Modi government on the RTI. As of now, over 32,000 appeals and complaints are pending before the Information Commission.
This is because the government had not appointed information Commissioners until the end of 2018.
There are total 11 posts of the Information Commissioners, out of which 8 seats lay vacant because the government wasn’t making any appointments.
Later, some activists filed a complaint in the Supreme Court then the government appointed four Information Commissioners at the beginning of 2019, but even now, four seats lay vacant.
Now you could ask that if this amendment is so incompetent, then why isn’t anyone protesting against it?
The media wouldn’t cover these issues as they are being backed by political parties.
Activist Aruna Roy, who had contributed a lot to the making of the RTI, was out on the roads protesting against the amendment.
Social activist Anna Hazare stated that the RTI Act amendments would lead to dictatorship in the country. Although when asked why he was not protesting against it, he said his old age is not allowing him to do so but if any young citizen raises his voice, he would definitely support him or her.
RESPONSE OF GOVERNMENT
The Modi government claimed that these amendments are being done to make the RTI Act stronger. They have provided their reasoning in one-page letter, which has 7-8 paragraphs written in English.
In my opinion, these facts are just confusing and make no sense. They have written rubbish just to defend themselves.
To defend Modi govt’s RTI Act changes, BJP released a ‘factsheet’. It doesn’t have much facts
So what is the solution to all these issues?
The solution is quite simple. The amendments that are being done should not be brought in. The RTI Act should be made stronger. The Information Commissioners should be made more independent.
In fact, in my opinion, the police should also be made independent.