The Right to Information (RTI) Act is under fire again. As per media reports, the government has put forth a proposal to undermine the autonomy of information commissioners - the Modi sarkar wants to empower itself to receive and probe complaints against them.
Information commissions adjudicate on appeals and complaints of citizens who have been denied access to information under the sunshine law. In recent times, the commission has ordered disclosure of information which has proved to be inconvenient and embarrassing for the government―from disclosure of educational qualifications of the Prime Minister to details of deliberations in the Reserve Bank of India about demonetisation.
According to reports, the government has proposed setting up of two bureaucrat-led committees; one to receive and decide on complaints against the Chief Information Commissioner and another for complaints against Information Commissioners. For complaints against the Chief, the committee shall comprise the Cabinet Secretary, the Secretary of DoPT and a retired Chief Information Commissioner. For complaints against information commissioners, the committee will consist of the Secretary (Coordination) in the Cabinet Secretariat, the Secretary of DoPT and a retired commissioner.
Empowering such sarkari committees to receive and decide complaints against information commissioners is a clear attempt to destroy their independence. It would become a means to intimidate commissioners to toe the government line – directions to disclose inconvenient information could invite adverse consequences.
Apart from being extremely regressive, the move would be illegal as the RTI Act envisages the Information Commissions as independent institutions and provides several safeguards to insulate them from government control and interference. Section 14(1) of the law states that commissioners can be removed only by the President “on the ground of proved misbehaviour or incapacity after the Supreme Court, on a reference made to it by the President, has, on inquiry, reported that the Chief Information Commissioner or any Information Commissioner, as the case may be, ought on such ground be removed”.
Another problem with the BJP government’s proposal is that it has been drafted in absolute secrecy without any public consultation – in contravention of the fundamental democratic principles of transparency and peoples’ participation in policy making. This is not the first time that the current government has tried to stifle the autonomy of the transparency watchdogs. The latest proposal comes in the backdrop of amendments that the BJP government was surreptitiously trying to push in 2018. The amendments sought to empower the Central government to decide the tenure, salaries, allowances and other terms of service of all information commissioners in the country, despite the fact that these are already defined in the RTI Act.
“Empowering such sarkari committees to receive and decide complaints against information commissioners is a clear attempt to destroy their independence. It would become a means to intimidate commissioners to toe the government line – directions to disclose inconvenient information could invite adverse consequences.”
Since April 2018, when it was first reported that the RTI Act was likely to be amended, citizens took to the streets and campaigned against the amendments. In every subsequent Parliamentary session, the amendment bill was listed for introduction, but was finally dropped due to overwhelming public pressure.
The BJP government’s onslaught on the transparency law has not been limited to attempts to compromise the autonomy of information commissions. The government impaired the functioning of the Central Information Commission (CIC) by not making appointments to fill vacancies. Ever since the BJP came to power in 2014, not a single appointment to the CIC has been made unless citizens approach courts and get necessary directions. In 2018, out of a total sanctioned strength of 11 commissioners, the CIC was functioning with just 3 commissioners. It was finally only on the orders of the Supreme Court that the Chief and four commissioners were selected by the PM-led selection committee.
Not making timely appointments leads to huge backlogs of appeals and complaints resulting in inordinate delays in the commission, which renders the law meaningless for citizens. In February 2019 the Supreme Court, taking serious note of the government’s failure to make timely appointments, ordered that the process of appointing new information commissioners must be initiated at least one or two months prior to retirement of existing commissioners. Further, in order to ensure transparency in the appointment process, the court directed that particulars of applicants, short-listing criteria and details of deliberations of the search and selection committees, be made public.
The track record of the current government has been extremely poor with respect to institutions of oversight. In January 2019, the Supreme Court was forced to overturn the illegal removal of the CBI Director by the government. The move to usurp disciplinary powers to probe and decide complaints against information commissioners is another step in the same direction.
The BJP came to power on the plank of anti-corruption. The last five years, however, have witnessed repeated attempts to undermine the RTI Act which has empowered millions of people across the country to expose graft. The latest proposal to subvert the RTI Act exposes the real intent of the government – to not be answerable to the people of the country.
The authors are co-petitioners in a Public Interest Litigation filed in the Supreme Court seeking appointment of Information Commissioners. They are also members of the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information (NCPRI) and Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS).