The Supreme Court of India has termed the Central Information Commissioners and the State Information Commissioners as “guardians” of the Right to Information Act passed by the United Progressive Alliance government of Manmohan Singh.
The second Narendra Modi government of the BJP, by bulldozing the Rights to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019, in the Lok Sabha and in the Rajya Sabha, has rendered the guardians of information caged parrots of the ruling party. It was after a great deal of work by civil society and open discussion by the citizens that the RTI Act came into being.
The amendments passed by Parliament without proper discussion seek to change Sections 13, 16, and 27 of the Act which give Central Information Commissioners the status of Election Commissioners and State Information Commissioners that of Chief Secretaries of States in order to enable them to function in an independent manner.
The amendments stipulate that the terms of office of the CICs and the SICs will be determined by the Union government against the existing provision of a fixed term of five years or up to the age of 65 years. Salaries, allowances and other terms of service of Information Commissioners both at the Centre and in the States will be decided by the Central government. Under our federal system, the Centre cannot decide salaries of State Information Commissioners who are paid by the State governments.
The existing RTI Act is a consensus law born out of public consultation. Fixing five-year tenure for Information Commissioners with 65 as retirement age, and equating salaries with that of Election Commissioners, was worked out by a parliamentary committee in which Ram Nath Kovind, now President of India, was a member, and not by the UPA government.
The BJP government wants to undermine the security of tenure of Information Commissioners and downgrade their salaries and bring them all under the control of the Central government. He who pays the piper calls the tune. When an Information Commissioner is beholden to the government for salary and tenure, he is surely under obligation to the government of the day.
The government’s claim that the Election Commission is a constitutional entity and the Information Commission is a statutory authority and that the two cannot enjoy the same status is specious. In 2017, the government fixed the salary structure of 19 quasi-judicial administrative commissions on a par with those of Supreme Court and High Court judges. When Information Commission’s rulings can be appealed in a High Court, how can the Information Commissioners have the status of superior court judges, asks Jitendra Singh, minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office.
He must know that even the Election Commission’s rulings can be reviewed by High Courts. The RTI deserves to be strengthened, not weakened.