By Prof M Sridhar Acharyulu
There was a deafening silence from two ministers on the new Right to Information amendment, while another guest said that Gandhi would have launched a Satyagraha against it. Information Commissioners — past and present — shared serious apprehensions in the corridors of Vigyan Bhavan during the 14th Annual Convention on RTI Amendment on October 12, 2019.
Ministers Amit Shah and Jitendra Singh thought it irrelevant to even mention the controversial amendment to the RTI Act 2005 disturbing the independence of Information Commissioners. They were speaking on the occasion of RTI commencement day. It was balanced, and participants felt relieved as Ambassador Pavan K Varma strongly criticised this amendment and said Gandhi would have resorted to Satyagraha in protest.
The chief guest, Union Minister for Home Amit Shah, spoke for 25 minutes but chose to ignore the amendment that was highly debated outside the Parliament. Shah presented profound admiration for the transparency law, claimed that it had bridged the gap between the people and the government, and addressed mistrust. The Home Minister explained in detail that the Modi Government had taken various steps for proactive disclosure on its own which effectively reduced the need to file RTI applications. He stated that the success of governance could be gauged by the number of RTI applications coming down and not by feeling great at its increase. As his narration progressed into questioning the necessity of not only RTI applications but also the information commissions, suddenly he found the need to remove such apprehension. He chose to declare that information commissioners would remain. The audience heaved a sigh of relief at that great assurance.
Another positive claim by the Home Minister was that the benefits to poor from RTI in last 14 years were greater than apprehended misuse. He said that he checked the dashboards for various schemes to know whether full information was available and only after that was he making a claim in the annual RTI meet at Delhi. “Modi Government created necessary infrastructure by way of fully equipped building for CIC, which was languishing in a rented building,” said Shah.
All those anxiously waiting to know the reason for reducing the status and stature of Information Commissioners were disappointed as Shah finished the address without commenting on that. Former and present Commissioners from various states were expecting Amit Shah to explain the need for such an amendment or at least disclose the status of Information Commissioners at states as well as Centre. Most sought after points in the lobby and dining halls of Vigyan Bhavan were: what will be the rank of the Commissioners; will it affect those who are already working; what will be the fate of newly appointed CICs with a condition that their service, status and salary would be “as prescribed by the Centre”.
The government appointed Commissioners at CIC before the 2019 Amendment under a notification that their terms and conditions would be “as prescribed by Centre” and not as per the RTI Act 2005. Though three months passed after the amendment was assented to by the President, there were no rules prescribed by the Centre. The frequently asked questions in the convention were: why are they not framed? Who will frame it? Does it come to Ministry of Law? Some people brought rumours that the rules were almost ready, and status was decided. Media persons were also found either inquiring or discussing possibilities.
In the subsequent sessions, suggestions came from the audience saying that the status and scales of wages of present Commissioners be protected; rightly adjusted pension without detriment; and if a sitting Commissioner applies for post of Chief Information Commissioner, his status before amendment be protected.
Surprisingly Jitendra Singh, the Minister of State for Personnel and Training — the nodal agency for implementation of RTI — was also conspicuously silent on this amendment. He did not utter even a single word on it. If that amendment is essential and considered a great reform, why would they not claim credit for it? Through such well-thought-silence, the comment was loud and clear that the amendment was not worth being referred!
One asked ‘how the inaugural speeches were’, and another answered, ‘what was not spoken appears to be very significant than the spoken’.
Pavan Kumar Varma, the ambassador, while addressing the next session on Gandhian thoughts and RTI emphatically stated that amendment was retrograde and not welcome. As if he was reading the minds of the audience, he criticised the amendment for a substantive part of his speech, balancing the prolonged silence. “Fixity of tenure and salary is important for the institution of IC. They cannot be as per the wishes or whims of the rulers. Though I do not doubt the intentions of the Government, I cannot agree with this amendment as its impact is going to be retrograde,” he added.
Gandhi would have protested
Pavan Varma did not hesitate to say that Gandhi, if alive, would have launched a Satyagraha to protest this amendment. “It is a well-established judicial principle that such an attempt to dilute the institution would weaken the power of a citizen secured by the Right to Information. The rights, especially the RTI, break the obesity of Government fiefdom. Anything perceived to be weakening the power of a citizen should be resisted. Gandhi would not have liked it,” he explained. Varma went on to declare that if we do not take the side of something we think right, we will be considered as colluders. The RTI lovers received these comments with huge applause.
One man had the answer for today’s troubles: #MahatmaGandhi. In his profoundly holistic vision of life is the blueprint for #sustainabledevelopment. On #UNDay, as we celebrate Gandhi and Sustainability, we recommit to those same ideals, which resonate so well with our @UN Charter pic.twitter.com/PfMzl8laH9
— United Nations India (@UNinIndia) October 24, 2019
After attending the RTI convention today, I thought it is my duty to share my observations about the speakers who spoke and did not choose to speak on the 2019 amendment, which I opposed as it is a violation of the fundamental right of expression and the federal character of Constitution.
(Prof M Sridhar Acharyulu is a former Central Information Commissioner & School of Law, Bennett University)