NEW DELHI—Nearly three months after the Narendra Modi government justified its widely criticised changes to the Right to Information (RTI) Act claiming they were needed because the original law was “clumsy” and “hastily” drafted, Home Minister Amit Shah on Saturday heaped enormous praise on what is often called the “sunshine legislation”.
“The main objective for introducing the RTI was to increase trust of people in the system of governance, and the act has been successful in instilling and strengthening the faith of the people that the system functions within the boundaries defined by the constitution,” Shah said.
This trust, he noted, “automatically increases a sense of partnership and ownership of people in governance, and this sense of partnership goes a long way in making the nation progress.”
Crucially, the Union Home Minister conceded that he had initially been a skeptic about the RTI Act because he feared that it will be misused, but analysing the law’s implementation over the years shows that it has yielded “more profit than loss”.
“When the Right To Information Act was made, several apprehensions were expressed. When I saw the law myself, when I studied it in 2006, at the time I also used to think that there is a higher possibility of it being misused. But over a period of time, today we can say that misuse has been very less, good use has been substantially more,” he admitted.
Specifically, Shah credited the RTI with bringing about a qualitative difference in the way governance is conducted by the administration.
“Transparency has increased, corruption is reduced and pace of governance has increased as well. We will have to accept today that because of the Right to Information we could bring these three aspects to administration,” he said.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president also made the rather astonishing claim that increased transparency was reducing the need for filing RTI applications as the Narendra Modi government has been putting out information on its own in public domain.
The most influential minister in the Narendra Modi government made these remarks while speaking at the fourteenth annual convention of the Central Information Commission (CIC), the final adjudicating authority for RTI applications filed by citizens with the central government and its various institutions.
The CIC’s annual convention is a government sponsored stocktaking exercise to assess the implementation of the Right to Information in the country. RTI users, activists and Information Commissioners from State Commissions across India attend the day-long convention to understand current issues pertaining to the law’s implementation and its future.
Top functionaries from the Central government, including the Prime Minister and President, address those assembled at the convention and share thoughts about RTI, transparency and how they see the future of the historic legislation. Typically, there is wholesome praise about the RTI. For instance, speaking at the 10th annual convention of the CIC in 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the RTI Act is a “tool through which common man has got not just the right to know, but also right to question those in power”.
When considered against this backdrop, Shah’s statements in praise of the RTI Act would seem like standard pronouncements from a top government functionary about the administration’s commitment to transparency.
But when seen in context with Narendra Modi government’s recent actions relating to the RTI law, Shah’s statements show that the ruling dispensation is indulging in calculated doublespeak about the RTI.
After all, it has not even been three months since Dr Jitendra Singh, minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, introduced the widely criticised amendments to the RTI law in parliament claiming that they were needed because the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance drafted a “clumsy act” in “haste” and one whose “anomalies” needed to be “corrected”.
“An obvious question comes up: how does a law with “anomalies” also manage to increase transparency, reduce corruption and increase the pace of governance?”
Thus, an obvious question comes up: how does a law with “anomalies”, in force for almost 14 years, also manage to increase transparency, reduce corruption and increase the pace of governance?
There was no answer from Shah or Singh to this obvious question on Saturday at the annual convention as the amendments to the RTI law were not mentioned at all by any of the top functionaries in charge of implementing the transparency legislation across the country. That this happened at an event designed to discuss current issues influencing the implementation of the law is noteworthy.
Also, the fact that the changes to the RTI law were not mentioned at all by those with most powers of implementing them indicates that they wanted to ensure the elephant in the room remains conspicuous by its absence.
Why Modi Govt’s Changes To The RTI Law Are Controversial
And why are the changes so consequential? Because all of them relate with deciding the terms of service and status of Information Commissioners whose work primarily involves hearing appeals from RTI applicants who have been denied information by government departments. Before the changes were made to the law, the commissioners’ powers were akin to those enjoyed by Judges of the Supreme Court as they are expected to provide justice to applicants seeking information.
Former Central Information Commissioner Yashovardhan Azad explained why the changes were problematic and could affect the implementation of the RTI act adversely in an interview with HuffPost India soon after the Parliament passed them. His basic point: the salaries and status of information commissioners will be “downgraded”.
And when the status is downgraded, it is obvious that they won’t be able to give decisions against people in high offices when the latter deny information to RTI applicants. Their independence will effectively be compromised.
At the annual convention held on Saturday in the national capital’s prestigious convention centre, Vigyan Bhawan, none of these issues were addressed by any of the ministers or serving information commissioners. Not even during a session explicitly meant to discuss the “challenges” of implementing the RTI in the future.
However, activist Anjali Bharadwaj, who filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court about filling up vacancies in the Information Commission, did bring up this issue in her presentation. “The problem is the law has been amended to say that the central government will now, through rules prescribed, decide what are the salaries, tenures and terms of service of information commissioners,” she said, in a matter-of-fact manner.
“Unfortunately...the rules are nowhere in sight. What that means is that the appointment process for information commissioners across the country today is in limbo. We don’t have any hope of timely disposal of cases when people go to the Commissions”
Bharadwaj also explained why this was a problem. “Unfortunately, it’s been more than two months, the rules are nowhere in sight. What that means is that the appointment process for information commissioners across the country today is in limbo. We don’t have any hope of timely disposal of cases when people go to the Commissions,” she said.
BJP-ally Janata Dal (United) member Pawan Verma, who attended one of the sessions at the convention as a panelist, also registered his protest while speaking earlier in the day. “The RTI has proved itself to be a great tool in the hands of people and the latest amendments will dilute it. If Gandhiji was alive, he would have led a Satyagraha against them,” Verma said.
It looks likely that such voices will only grow louder in the near future if the Modi government prolongs this ambiguity about the new rules for appointing information commissioners.
Bharadwaj told HuffPost India that she and her co-petitioners Amrita Johri and Commodore Lokesh Batra (Retired) have again approached the Supreme Court seeking a solution to the problem of non-appointment of information commissioners, which eventually leads to RTI applicants not getting the desired information.
At the annual convention on Saturday, Bharadwaj said the Right to Information needs to be “protected” by mobilising people’s support. “People will contribute and fight to protect this right. But I think, going forward, the experience of the last 14 years shows, this will not be an easy battle. The right will need to be protected not just by citizens but by everyone coming together—public authorities, information commissions and all the adjudicators at all levels,” she said.
All eyes are now on the Supreme Court and the Narendra Modi government for their next move.