Roll back the RTI Amendment Bill 2019
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Accountability. This is the base that holds democracy together. It's the fundamental principle behind the system of checks and balances that any democracy should uphold for its smooth functioning.
Over the years, many blows have been struck to our democratic structure and processes, but none so major as the one that has recently been initiated - the RIGHT TO INFORMATION AMENDMENT BILL, 2019, that has unfortunately been passed in both the houses of the Parliament. It is a massive move that has the potential to dismantle democratic spirit itself and lead to further concentration of power and impunity than there already is.
The Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005, was one of the most historic legislations, that comes next to the very Universal Adult Suffrage, in terms of its mass empowerment. It granted the right to every citizen to question "public authorities" (state bodies) and seek whatever information they wanted about the functioning of certain departments and/or officials. The authorities were made legally bound to reply to the RTI application within 30 days, and also to otherwise, maintain and disseminate important information about their working, simply to expand the sphere of accessibility to information. However currently, the political parties are outside the purview of the RTI Act.
The backbone of the RTI system comprises of majorly two bodies that govern and ensure it's functioning - the Central Information Commission and the State Information Commissions. These commissions were constituted as independent bodies to uphold the very tenet of accountability in the functioning of RTI, as their major role involves ensuring credible and valid responses to each plea as well as presiding over grievance redressal relating to any cases where the RTI Act has been violated. The Chief Information Commissioner leads the Central Information Commission. To ensure the independence of the Chief Information Commissioner, under section 13 of the RTI Act, they have been granted with a fixed tenure of five years as well as a fixed salary, immune from any government intervention.
It is this very section 13 of the RTI Act that the RTI Amendment Bill targets. It aims to change the Information Commisioners' fixed tenure of five years to "for such term as may be prescribed by the Central Government". Further, the salaries and allowances of the commissioners will also be subject to the central government's purview, after amending section 13 as per this Bill. Similar impingements upon the autonomy of the State Information Commissions would be enforced by bringing corresponding amends to section 16 of the Act, that talks about the tenure and salary of the State Information Commissioners. Further, the Centre plans to take the appointments of all these commissioners into its own hand completely. Presently, the CIC appointments are made by a three-member panel consisting of the PM, Leader of Opposition and a Cabinet Minister nominated by the PM. Similarly, for the SICs, the committee comprises of the CM, Leader of Opposition in the state legislature, and a state Cabinet Minister nominated by the CM. Therefore, by bringing all the aforementioned appointments under its jurisdiction, this move enables the Centre to undermine some of the states' decision-making powers.
It isn't a puzzle to decipher the comsequences of this Amendment Bill becoming an Act post the approval of the President of India. It's like placing the power of firing a teacher from their job in the hands of the very students they evaluate in the classroom examinations. We don't even need to know much about politics to understand that such evaluation can never be "free and fair". If the Information Commissions exist with the very aim of protecting citizens from the government impinging on their right to information, how can they ever fulfil their duty in an unbiased manner with the government standing right over their heads with a sword that can be dropped anytime as per their convenience?
With the Information Commissions losing their autonomy, we all are going to lose our biggest weapon against the politically strong and corrupt - information. Information that is used to spark up huge movements and drive change in the polity. Knowledge without which we can't even start to ascertain right from wrong. Truth that we need for all decisions that we make - from supporting government policies in our heads, to independent journalism and even voting intelligently. I can't even begin to enumerate the large vacuum this amendment can leave in the political life of an ordinary citizen, in each and every aspect.
An institution that has to deliver justice to the citizens - justice that often comes at the cost of the integrities of powerful and influential people - must be independent, or else the rights of the citizens are in danger. When these rights are threatened, democracy can't sustain.
This petition aims to preserve a massive pillar of our democracy - the Right to Information Act - by demanding the rollback of the Right to Information Amendment Bill, 2019, and if required, its judicial invalidation in our highest courts of law on grounds of the violation of the fundamental spirit of democracy and the Indian Constitution.
It has been said that "Knowledge is power". And the day this power is taken away from people, democracy would be crushed.
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