That piece of legislation hailed as the second freedom of the country, the Right to Informaton Act (RTI) is facing serious threats. Ever since it came nto effect on 12 October 2005, it has faced challenges from rulers, bureaucracy, and even from the judiciary.
When it came into being, that inaugurated an era actualizing the democratic tenet that people are the masters. Quite naturally, it did make those occupying seats of power uneasy. And RTI has a rare distinction that within six months of operation, it started feeling the pressure for being amended. On each occasion, the amendments were touted as aiming at improvement. And in each amendment the attempt to dilute and weaken the law, was all too clear.
With the NDA taking office, such moves became more vigorous. When the Modi government came up with an amendment las year, without due advance notice or general debate, it had to be deferred at the face of stiff oposition. And when Modi government took office for a second term, and has now come up with an amendment that harm people's interest, that also is done in haste, without preparedness for a public debate or scrutiny by parliament standing committee. Still what the central minister of state for Prime Minister's office, Jitendra Singh, who piloted the amendment on 19 July, told the Lok Sabha is that it is for making it foolproof and removing some of the anomalies. But then what does this amendment consist of? The amendment on the 2005 legislation is mainly on two scores.
The undeclared objectives to be achieved through the amendments in Sections 13,16 and 27 of RTI Act, are that the Central government will be vested wth new powers that did not exist before, and also with powers amounting to supremacy over state Information Commissions. The main amendment is that the tenure of Chief Informaton Commissioner and other Commissioners and their salaries will be as decided by the Central Government. As of now, these are fixed to be on a par with the Election Commission. When that is left to the discretion (read mercy) of the government, it will strip the Commission of its autonomy, which in effect will also deprive the people of their right to scrutinise the functioning of the Commission. And with the amendment in Section 16 of the RTI law, in such a way as to take over the right to decide the appointment of state commissioners and their tenure and salaries, that will represent another hit from Modi government to the federalist principle.
In fact RTI is a powerful tool in the bands of the common man against misrule, corruption and fake propaganda. Each year, about 60 lakh queries are being raised by the people under the law. And over the last two years, there has been an increase by 35 per cent in the number of enquiries under the law. Many of the false propaganda by the government have been exposed by RTI. It is a nightmare for the corrupt in bureaucracy. It uncovered even the falsehood in the affidavits submitted by candidates during election. When prime minister Modi claimed that he had secured a degree from Delhi University, the RTI acted as the bulwark in favour of the activists to demand the university's marksheets. It is another story that the court was also made to intervene against it. On the whole, it is easy to see who all get disturbed by RTI.
For this very reason, the centre has brought in amendments that can make the Information Commission – that orders the ruling establishment with authority on behalf of the people – subservient to the government. A weakened RTI will benefit two classes: the politicians in the ruling coterie, and the bureaucracy in the Centre and the states. The current move cannot be justified at any rate. When the government, which caused a serious dent in the transparency of government by distancing and overpowering media, puts checks on the people's legal right to get information, the very institution of RTI turns in to a 'caged parrot'. Needless to say, opposing it is a right and obligation of all advocates of democracy.
The law of 2005 was passed by the parliament unanimously after a diligent study by its standing committee and detailed debate on the floor. And it is that legislation which is being amended in a hurry without reference to any committee. When the government sets out to torpedo federalism, strip Information Commissions of their autonomy and remove the last loophole of administrative transparency, there may not be any in the ruling parties or bureaucracy left to rescue the law. It is for the people themselves to clamour that RTI is a right bestowed by the constitution.
The people in turn should raise this matter before their MPs and the central government. They should demand that neither should stand in the way of the right to good governance. Even if the bill passes through the Lok Sabha, it should be defeated at least in Rajya Sabha. It may be relevant to recall that in the name of using the right to elicit information under RTI, at least 80 people were killed. Their martyrdom should not go vain. The people should raise their voice not only to salvage RTI law, but also to get enacted 'Whistle-blowers protection law' that gives the citizen the right to expose corruption in the government. There should be a loud clamour that people are the masters.