Protest demonstration against RTI Amendment Bill , Screengrab, (Courtesy: counterview.net)
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New Delhi:

Amid strong objection from the opposition, the NDA government on Monday passed the controversial RTI amendment bill. While 178 members agreed with the bill, 79 voted against it.

But why did the bill became controversial? Why is opposition rejecting its implementation? Here is all that you need to know:

Right to Information Act, 2005

Right to Information Act was passed in 2005 and mandates timely response to citizen requests for government information.

“The basic object of the Right to Information Act is to empower the citizens, promote transparency and accountability in the working of the Government, contain corruption, and make our democracy work for the people in real sense.”

“It goes without saying that an informed citizen is better equipped to keep necessary vigil on the instruments of governance and make the government more accountable to the governed. The Act is a big step towards making the citizens informed about the activities of the Government,” states the objective of the act.

What was amended?

In the 2019 proposal to amend the act, the NDA government has removed the fixed 5 years tenure of the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) and other information commissioners. They also have brought about a change in their salaries. That is, the government will get to decide when to remove the information commissioners and get to decide their salaries.

This effectively means that the ruling government can threaten or lure the RTI chief by promising aa salary increase or decrease, or arbitrary removal or extension.

How will the bill dilute RTI act? 

At present, CIC and IC are appointed by a three-member panel comprising of the Prime Minister, Leader of opposition or the leader of the single largest opposition party in Lok Sabha, and a cabinet minister suggested by Prime Minister. Similar is the case of state CIC and state IC, wherein a similar pattern is followed with a committee comprised of Chief Minister, leader of the opposition and a state cabinet minister.

And they could be removed only by the President or the state governor (respectively in case of CIC and SCIC), only if an investigation by Supreme Court finds reasons valid enough to remove them. But with the amendment, the power to make decisions is rested with the ruling government in the centre.

This questions the very spirit of Right to Information, 2005.

How did NDA defend themselves?

While presenting the bill, Minister of State Jitendra Singh reiterated that it is not an attempt to meddle with the independence of the RTI body, but maintained it as an attempt to correct the flaws.

“Probably, the then government of the day, in a hurry to pass the RTI Act, 2005, overlooked a lot of things. The Central Information Commissioner has been given the status of a Supreme Court judge but his judgments can be challenged in the high courts. How can that exist? The RTI Act did not give the government rule-making powers. We are merely correcting these through the amendment,” Singh said.

Modi government and RTI

Previously, in 2017, there was an RTI that enquired about the educational qualification of Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. Sridhar Acharyulu, an information commissioner, asked the Delhi University to permit to inspect the records of students who passed BA in 1978, the year in which Modi apparently passed the exam.

Acharyulu had another tiff with the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and the environment ministry for not providing information on the certifications of Jana Gana Mana as our national anthem and Vande Mataram as the national song.

He had stated that the PMO’s response of not giving information was not proper and legal, and it breached the right to information of people.

Within the next two days, Mr Acharyulu was divested of  HRD ministry charge.

RTI Elimination Bill: What are the responses? 

“Will not be surprised if Govt lists RTI Bill for passing in Rajya Sabha on Wednesday. Be assured, we will do what it takes to preserve Parliamentary democracy.14 Bills already passed with ZERO scrutinies by Parliament committees. Constructive Opposition can’t be steamrolled,” wrote Derek O’Brien, TMC MP.

Lawyer-Activist Prashant Bhushan claimed that the government has a lot to hide. “They hide info on cronies the PM takes with him on his foreign trips (to get them contracts). They hide info on which PSUs have given backdoor mining contracts to which cronies. They hide info on the Rafale deal esp offset contracts to Adani. No wonder they seek to kill RTI,” he tweeted.

“Killing RTI is killing the law which made governed equal to those governing them, gave a commoner power to question the mighty! Will be the most regressive step in years,” said Swati Maliwal, Chairperson of Delhi Commission for Women.

Journalist Meghnad said the RTI is about to become a ‘Regret To Inform’ you Act.

“It is clear that the present Central Government sees the RTI Act as a nuisance and wants to destroy the status and independence of the Central Information Commission which was put on par with the Central Election Commission and Central Vigilance Commission. The Central Government may use its legislative majority to achieve its aims but in the process, it would be disempowering each and every citizen of our country,” said Congress leader Sonia Gandhi.

After all, What does it cost you to seek information?

If media reports are to be believed, since its inception in 2005, Close to 70 RTI activists had been murdered in the country. There are over 300 reported cases of attacks against RTI activists across the nation.

Most numbers of attacks happened in Maharashtra, followed by Gujarat, states the data.

In a country where 67 RTI activists had been murdered and many others facing threat to life any amendment that tries to interfere in the very spirit of RTI act has to be seen with suspicion.

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