Chief Information Commissioner will be a new puppet of the Centre after new amendments in RTI Laws

The Bill to amend Right to Information (Amendment) Act has been passed by Lok Sabha on Monday. 178 votes were cast in favour while 79 votes were cast against The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019.

The Bill amends Sections 13 and 16 of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005. Section 13 had set the term of the central CIC and Information Commissioners at five years, or until the age of 65, whichever was earlier.

Opposition and RTI Activists alleged that it would dilute transparency law and would make Information Commissioners puppets of the Modi led central government.

The opposition argued that the Bill will take away the independence of RTI authorities- CIC’s and the ICs.

Moving the bill, which was tabled in the house on July 19, for passage, Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office, Jitendra Singh said that the current tenure for both the CIC and ICs is five years but the Bill seeks to remove this provision and give the Central government the power to notify the terms of office.

“The salary for the CIC will be the same as Chief Election Commissioner. But the bill seeks to change this and allows the government to fix the salary,” he said.

Initiating the debate, Congress leader Shashi Tharoor strongly objected to the Bill and sought its withdrawal.

“Are you bringing this amendment because an Information Commissioner asked the PMO to reveal the PM’s educational details? What is the hurry in bulldozing every bill without scrutiny? Why the government delaying constituting the parliamentary standing committees?” he asked.

AIMIM’s Asaduddin Owaisi asked why the government would decide the salary of Information Commissioners.

DMK’s A. Raja dismissed the government’s argument that the CIC cannot be equated with the CEC since the former is a statutory body, while the latter is a constitutional body.

“Today is a dark day for democracy. Democracy is a continuous process, it doesn’t end with elections,” he said.

Trinamool Congress member Saugata Roy said the government brought the amendment to “curtail” the powers of information commissioners.

Pointing out at how several RTI activists were killed, Roy said it is a lifeline for 40-60 lakh ordinary users.

Biju Janata Dal’s Bhartruhari Mahtab said past and present governments have sought amendments to dilute the RTI law. “This attempt is an assault on the idea of federalism.”

Social Activists Harsh Mandar, Anjali Bhardwaj and others also condemned this act of the government.

“New RTI amendments will make tenure of Information Commissioners dependent on Central Government. Govt is thereby making sure that most information commissioners look over their shoulders before passing any order. In effect, severely damaging RTI won after long struggle,” civil rights activist tweeted.

Anjali Bhardwaj another activist also voiced against amendments in the current RTI bill. “Amendments to the transparency law were brought about in complete secrecy. No public disclosure or debate on amendments. A clear violation of the Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy and of peoples’ right to know. #DontAmendRTI,” she tweeted.

It is important to note that RTI bill was introduced by the Congress and Social Activists have been using it as a tool to unveil facts that are not public. Several RTI Activists have been murdered as a result of unearthing corruption in the government sectors.

Several RTI applications were filed to know about educational qualifications of political leaders including PM Modi and BJP leader Smriti Irani. Apart from these questions the act helped unearth many hidden facts which were impossible otherwise.

Some examples when RTI helped come out with the truth:

1. An RTI filed has revealed that former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan had indeed sent a list of NPA defaulters to PM Modi as early as eight months into his prime ministerial tenure.

2. The Bharatiya Janata Party paid a total of Rs 1.4 crore to the Indian Air Force for 240 “non-official domestic trips” made by Narendra Modi since the start of his tenure as prime minister till January 2019, according to information received by from the IAF under the Right to Information Act.

3. An application under the Right to Information (RTI) act, filed by Meena Menon, demanding farmers’ suicides data for the whole country from 2016 to 2018 (three years) and the reasons for not making them public, elicited the response that the data for accidental deaths and suicides for 2016 is under finalisation. In a reply dated 8 January, 2019, senior statistical officer Sanjay Kumar said that the data for 2017 and 2018 is not with the Bureau as yet. He then went on to give navigational details of how to access the 2015 data and the general information available on the website.

4. The RTI activist Sabharwal had sought the information from PMO to give details about the expenditure done on the wardrobe of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

5. RBI Had Objections To Notes Ban, Agreed In “Public Interest”, Reveals RTI

6. At an average of ₹48 lakh per bond, the State Bank of India (SBI) has issued 10,494 electoral bonds in nine phases so far, worth over ₹5,029 crore, an RTI response has revealed.

There are many more examples when government departments have been questioned and they had to answer. With the amendments in the existing bill, it is likely that information commissioners will be under obligation of the government and facts would come in public.

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