The most powerful democratic right in India is the right to information.
The Right to Information (RTI) Act of 2005 became an effective tool in the hands of the citizen. Nothwithstanding the efforts by governments and the bureaucracy to weaken it , they did not succeed thanks to stiff opposition. But now, without much glare of publicity, by sneaking in the amendments to the RTI Act among legislative agenda, Narendra Modi government is once again betraying its hypocritical face. BJP is a party that rode to power promising transparency in government and freedom from corruption. But by diluting the RTI Act – a law that has the teeth to ensure administrative transparency in extent and depth – they have proven their opposition to corruption and posture of transparency to be hollow. Although the amendments have been deferred for the time being at the face of strong opposition, they have not abandoned the plans in toto. When the government included this one-line item in the agenda of Parliament's monsoon session, it broke the precedent that legislations should be subjected to prior discussions. Such amendments to law should have been brought before the public and people's representatives 30 days in advance. The very act of surreptitiously inserting it in the agenda without following any such precedents, in itself constituted a negation of transparency. Even earlier, the BJP had tried to defang RTI. The amendments introduced last year, were capable of tightening the conditions for legal appeal and enabling repeal of applications. Had they been passed, the government would have been able to get RTI applications withdrawn by forcing and threatening RTI activists . That amendment was however deferred because of opposition by the public, activists and Opposition parties. But now the government is at it again with another conspiracy to bring RTI Commissioners under control.
The proposed amendment is aimed at changing the provisions regarding the term of service and salary of RTI commissioners, the latter being made subject to the decision of the Central Government. As it stands now, the term of office and salary and allowances enjoy constitutional protection. But if and when they are left to the mercy of the government, that will in effect mark the end of right to information. A specious argument has also been raised to justify the amendment, that there is a difference between the constitutional status of the election commissioners and RTI commissioners. The absurdity of such gobbledygook has been highlighted by jurists. Further, right to information forms part of the fundamental rights in our Constitution, as it falls within the jurisdiction of Constitution's Article 19(1) A. In addition to this, as per the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which India is a signatory, right to freedom of opinion and of expression includes "the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." In fact, the 2005 RTI Act was passed by the Parliament after diligent discussions about all legal and constitutional details. As such, torpedoing that legislation by bringing in some fake arguments is uncalled for and ill-advised. Therefore, it becomes incumbent on those who believe in democracy and citizen's rights to defeat the amendment move. If the government succeeds in this vicious attempt, that will spell the end of the independent status of the position of RTI commissioners. Once the government gets the right to appoint them, transfer them and terminate their services, and to decide their remuneration, then right to information will become lifeless letters. What the manner of bringing in the RTI amendment, and the objectives behind the move, prove is the fact that BJP's anti-corruption posture and claim to transparency are mere verbal gimmick. RTI has been instrumental in exposing major scams and in reducing, at least to some extent, corruption in government.
At the same time, under the current the BJP regime different obstacles are being raised for people's receiving information. An example is that the government was able to hide all aspects of demonetization from the people. And the delay in proceeding with the Lokpal Bill, Whistle Blowers Protection Act, and Citizen's Charter and Grievance Redressal bill, do not evince any good intentions on the part of the government. True, that for now the RTI amendment has not been moved in the Parliament. But it is not enough, and the move should entirely be dropped. It is ultimately the people themselves who have to safeguard their right to know. The principle that eternal vigilance is the price for freedom, is highly relevant in the matter of RTI amendment. Pressure should be exerted on the government to abandon the move for amendment. This demand has to be raised before MP's and the government. Further, citizens should increasingly come forward to make use of RTI. For, statistics tell that the number of RTI applications has been coming down, either due to the indifference of the government or otherwise. Applications during 2016-17 were 6 per cent fewer than that of 2015-16. It is not enough for rights to exist, but they should be exercised too. Right to information is more valuable than right to vote. It should not be lost, and never allowed to be lost.