ast week, the Modi government had to bow to the opposition and defer the introduction of the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2018. The Bill sought to bring the Chief Information Commissioner and State Information Commissioners under the central government’s control. Its passage would have meant that the tenure and pay of these facilitators of right to information would be firmly in the control of the central government. It would then have been able to dictate who gets to stay in the post for how long and for what pay. That would make it easy for the powers that be to keep the right pack of people in place to control what information is given out and what is retained.
The Bill has been viewed as a devious plan to defeat the purpose of RTI Act, and is rightly being resisted. But the danger is yet to be averted. At present, the Opposition has only achieved a minor victory in not allowing the Bill to be presented. It is bound to return. The real challenge would be to still prevent dilution of the RTI Act. Going by history of many a powerful legislation, it can be safely said that in due course, amendments may find their way in by the back door. For a government that has taken the money bill route to get vital legislation passed despite opposition, that would not be a difficult thing to achieve if it so intends.
The RTI Act, by itself, does not have adequate guards against its dilution. Already, there are clauses which prevent sharing of information. The implementation of the Act is in a weakened state with the growing vacuum in top echelons at the Central Information Commission and rising pendency of RTI applications. The commission functions from a well-appointed building in the capital city constructed at a cost of Rs53 crore. But workings are not smooth owing to a paucity of officials. Four commissioners’ wings of the building are reportedly still empty and four teams of staff are awaiting their bosses. In November, another four top officials will retire, opening as many vacancies. Against the sanctioned strength of 11 information commissioners, the Central Information Commission will then have only three and no chief. The Information Commission, too, might join the long line of toothless bodies of this land. It already is on that very dangerous path. The Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions together have a pendency of 40,000 RTI cases, whose disposal is bound to take years, owing to vacancies and the general average pace.
The government has not just taken a myopic stand on the tenure and salaries of the Chief Information Commissioner and State Information Commissioners without considering the federal structure or the implications of such a move on the transparency law, there seems to be a systemic effort to weaken all major institutions. The Modi government has based its stand on the concept of how the Information Commission differs from the Election Commission. The argument is that while Election Commission is a constitutional body, the Central Information Commission is dictated solely by the RTI Act. The government conveniently ignores the fact that information commissions had come into force to protect a legal right of the people. The RTI Act should not be meddled with unless and until amendments bring about changes that favour the people in general. Mechanisms should be put in place to discourage temporary governments from making permanent changes which damage the fabric of the nation and its institutions.