RTI (Amendment) Bill, 2019 – A result of weak parliamentary scrutiny

Mr. Vaibhav Suppal

Abstract

Opposition plays a very vital role in the Parliamentary Democracy. The absolute majority of the BJP government in the Parliament has led to the legislation of several laws with arbitrary provisions in it. In this article, the author puts forward the worrisome situation of the Indian legislative system due to the ineffectiveness of the opposition’s political dialogues in the Parliament. The RTI (Amendment) Bill, 2019 is one of the examples of the several bills which were passed in both the houses of the Parliament with numerous loopholes in it. This article will refer to, as well as critique, the arbitrary provisions in this bill and points out the irrationality of the amendment.

 

RTI (AMENDMENT) BILL, 2019 – A RESULT OF WEAK PARLIAMENTARY SCRUTINY

John F. Kennedy once remarkably said “without a debate, without a criticism, no administration and no country can succeed and no administration can survive”. In the 17th Lok Sabha, the world saw the highest numbers of bills passed in the lower house of Indian Parliament in over 15 years. The citizens of our country have witnessed weakening of parliamentary scrutiny due to the overwhelming majority of the ruling party in the Parliament. As a consequence, the opposition was seen demanding scrutiny of at least 3 bills by the standing committee. Under the second term of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in 2011, 71% of the bills went to the Parliamentary Committee and were extensively debated upon to eliminate all the ambiguities in it. In the 16th Lok Sabha, the number got reduced and only 26% bills were sent to the Parliamentary Committee whereas presently in 17th Lok Sabha, 11 bills were introduced in the lower house and none of them are made to be examined by the Parliamentary Committee.

“Liking law doesn’t matter as long as made using proper process” said the English Jurist, John Austin. The present condition of our legislative system can be perfectly associated with the John Austin’s Legal theory of Positivism. The theory talks about the rule of absolutism which can be perceived in the present tenure of the BJP government. After the consecutive win in the 2019 General elections, the ruling party has been successful in passing several bills in the Parliament without any obstacles. The opposition has failed to fulfill its duty and several laws were enacted with arbitrary provisions in it. Thus, each and every command of the sovereign resulted into a law.

As rightly mentioned by Julian McMahon, “Some laws are wrong and we have an obligation to raise our voice against such laws”. An absolute majority of BJP in the Parliament has made the opposition voiceless. Therefore, in spite of a strong disagreement over the provisions mentioned under the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 by the opposition, the bill was passed in the both the houses of Parliament which required closer examination of a standing committee to remove all the loopholes in it.

What is the RTI Act about?

Right to Information was recognized as a fundamental right under the ambit of Article 19(1) (a) in the judgment of State of U.P. v. Raj Narain & Ors. Subsequently, the Right to Information Act, 2005 was enacted to ensure transparency between the government and the citizens of the country. The aim of this act was to construct a bridge between the government and the general public by providing them with the basic idea of the governance of the State. It was enacted during the tenure of the first Congress-led UPA government with the objective to allow each and every Indian citizen to seek information from the public authorities about its working in the form of files, documents and electronic records.

What does the amendment in the RTI Act propose?

The main act i.e., the Right to Information Act, 2005, consists of provisions regarding the fixed tenure of Chief Information Commissioners (CICs) and Information Commissioners (ICs) at both Centre and State level under Section 13 and Section 16 respectively. As per the main act, the tenure of the service of CICs and ICs was fixed for the term of 5 years and up to the age 65. The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 proposes to change the fixed tenure of the RTI authorities as per the executive rules made by the Central Government. It also proposes an amendment in the Section 27 of the main act by giving power to the Central Government to control the salaries, allowances and service conditions of the Information Commissioners at both central and state level.

The amendment does away with provision which provides that when appointed, if the Information Commissioners are receiving any retirement benefits for previous government service, then their income will be reduced by an amount equal to the pension that they would receive. Thus, the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 snatched away the autonomous nature of CICs and ICs which is essential to keep transparency in the mechanism of RTI.

Does the amendment protect a right or kill one?

Abhishek Singhvi, the national spokesperson of INC rightly said,

“If the ruling party has the authority to alter the service conditions of Information Commission anytime, there will always be a sword hanging over them which will destroy their freedom and take away their independence.”

Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 has been passed with the idea of diluting crucial transparency of law amid a strong opposition in both the houses of Parliament. The previous RTI Act consisted of provisions which make the Information Commission enjoy the status and privileges equal to the Election Commission in order to ensure that they perform their tasks autonomously. The idea behind the amendment was to rationalize the status and service conditions of Information Commission as the duties and work performed by them are different from Election Commission. However, the proposed amendment is more likely to take away the independence and neutrality of the RTI authorities as the Central government will decide everything ranging from their term of service and salaries to the allowances provided to them. This will make the RTI authorities more loyal to the government and can be used as a weapon to withhold the information which will embarrass the ruling party.

There can be various statistics related to NPAs, RBI and demonetization which may be going against the government and the ruling party will not be willing to disclose such significant information as it can make the tenure of their government under trouble. This bill will help them in maintaining the secrecy of it by overpowering the RTI authorities. In the words of former Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi, “Some Information Commissioners do show independence and give decisions which are not liked by those with power. This move appears to be downgrading them and make them caged parrots mimicking his master’s voice”.

Lakhs of RTI applications are filed every year and most of the times the respondent decided by the Information Commission is the government. Therefore, the autonomy of the Information Commission must be protected in order to keep the transparency in the system. The Information Commission at both Centre and State level deals with huge vested interests of our country. Their job is to eradicate the flaws prevailing in our system. It can only be done if the Central and State Information Commission have both authority and independence. The amendment done under the bill can be signified as a direct attack on the public’s fundamental right to information. It killed the previously enacted right rather than protecting it.


 

Vaibhav Suppal is a 2nd year law student (B.A., LL.B.) at Symbiosis Law School Hyderabad.

 


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