Prof. Jagdeep Chhokar
The passage of the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 by both houses of Parliament is a very significant event. It has implications for several critical areas of governance in the country. It can be interpreted in the following ways: It is (a) a struggle of power between the Executive and the Legislature, (b) dilution of peoples’ power over government, (c) move away from a democratic towards an authoritarian society, (d) a shift from the direction of ‘open’ government towards an opaque or confidential government or (e) the stranglehold of the political establishment (consisting of all political parties) over the affairs of the nation.
Technically, or in theory, what the amendment does is that the service conditions (tenure and salary) of all Information Commissioners (central as well as in the states) which were so far to be decided by Parliament will henceforth be decided by the government of the day, without any approval from the Parliament. What it does in reality, or in practice, is to bring Information Commissioners completely under the direct control of the government of the day.
The preamble to the RTI Act, 2005, states that the purpose of the act is to set out a “practical regime of right to information for citizens to secure access to information under control of public authorities, in order to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority…”, and that “democracy requires an informed citizenry and transparency of information which are vital to its functioning and also to contain corruption and to hold Governments and their instrumentalities accountable to the governed.” Hence, the only raison d’être for the existence of Information Commissioners was to ensure that public (essentially, government) authorities make such information available to citizens which will help citizens to protect their fundamental rights and avail of public services which may be denied to them and to which they are legally entitled.
What the above long and complex sentence means in simple English is that Information Commissioners, by the very nature of their jobs, are required and expected to make decisions that are not to the liking of the government of the day. If the tenure and salary of Information Commissioners is dependent on the pleasure of the government, expecting them to make decisions that the government does not like, just cannot be expected. This is a straight-forward case of perverse incentives!
Passing of this amendment also highlights the insidious hypocrisy of political parties. It is worth noting that when the Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha, only nine MPs voted against it. And when it was put to vote in the Rajya Sabha, the combined opposition could garner only 95 votes for sending the Bill to a select committee, against 117 who opposed sending the Bill to a select committee. This is when the total strength of the ruling coalition is 112 out of a total of 240 members of the Rajya Sabha. Only 212 members were present in the House at the time of voting.
After the motion to send the Bill to a select committee was defeated, the Opposition seemed to give up entirely. Members of several opposition parties staged a ‘walkout’, and some others supported the ruling coalition.
The history of political parties being averse to the RTI law is almost as long as the life of the law. The first attempt to weaken it under the garb of strengthening it was made in 2006, just a year after it was passed, by the same ruling coalition that piloted it. That attempt, and two others made by the same ruling coalition, were vehemently opposed by the community of, what has come to be called, RTI activists, and therefore did not succeed.
The current ruling coalition tried the same trick in its first tenure but did not succeed. That it decided to do it now, with great determination, is now obvious.
Another proof of this aversion is the disdain with which the six national political parties have treated a full-bench decision of the Central Information Commission (CIC) for the last six years. It was on June 3, 2013 that a full-bench of the CIC declared six national political parties (BJP, Congress, NCP, BSP, CPI, CPM) to be ‘public authorities’ under the RTI Act, and ordered them to appoint Public Information Officers, as required under the RTI Act, and respond to requests for information made under the Act.
In blatant and arrogant display of disdain for the highest statutory authority in the country for the RTI Act, they refused to implement the decision of the CIC. When the CIC sent notices, including show-cause notices, to all the six parties asking them why they had not implemented the decision, all of them ignored the notices and did not respond at all. Some refused to accept the notices!
Finally, on March 16, 2015, the CIC, in frustration, wrote, “…the respondents (the six national political parties) are not in compliance with the Commission’s order of 03.06.2013 and the RTI Act. The respondents, as public authorities, have not implemented the directions contained in the Commission’s order and there is no evidence of any intention to do so….” Calling it an “unusual case of wilful non-compliance”, CIC said it “is bereft of the tools to get its orders complied with.” The issue is now in the Supreme Court.
With this kind of political dispensation, expecting the RTI to survive or to revive it, is a daring hope. It is now left to the civil society at large, and the community of RTI activists in particular to continue to struggle so that the power that the people have tasted over the last 14 years, is not lost forever.
(Jagdeep S Chhokar is a former Professor, Dean, and Director In-charge of IIM Ahmedabad. Views are personal)
This article was originally published in Deccan Herald