In a move that has come under fire from the Opposition and social rights activists, the Modi government has framed amendments to Right to Information (RTI) Act to give itself powers to prescribe term of office and salaries of information commissioners across India.
The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill 2018, which has been circulated among members of Parliament a day before the monsoon session commences on Wednesday, includes amendments that do away with a fixed term of five years for information commissioners both at Central Information Commission (CIC) and State Information Commissions (SICs). The amendments enable the Centre to prescribe the term of office, salaries and allowances and other terms and conditions of service of chief information commissioners, information commissioners, state chief information commissioners and state information commissioners.
The government has introduced amendments to Sections 13, 16 and 27 of the Act. With the amendments the government has given itself powers to determine before each appointment how long the information commissioner can be in service. However, the amendments clearly specify that this term cannot be reduced after his appointment. With the amendments, the government has scaled down the stature of information commissions. At present, Chief information commissioner has the stature and payscale of Chief information commissioners have the same salaries and allowances as that of Election Commissioners.
The move has come under fire from RTI activists. Terming it as a “body blow to transparency” Anjali Bhardwaj of National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) said, “The government should be worried about implementation of RTI Act. Instead it is striking at the very heart of an institution which guards the fundamental right to information.” Activists are worried that if the government has a say in these matters, it would adversely affect the independence of the commissions, which are the final appellate authority for RTI Act.
The government’s justification for introducing the amendments to give it more control over commissioners is that the functions being carried out by Election Commission of India and information commissions are very different. “The Election Commission is a constitutional body established by clause (1) of Article 324 of the Constitution… On the other hand, CIC and state information commissions are statutory bodies established under the provisions of RTI Act. Therefore, the mandate… are different. Hence, their status and service conditions need to be rationalised accordingly.”
Venkatesh Nayak of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative said, “By seeking to give governments the power to vary the salary and allowances of information commissioners at the time of every appointment, government seems to want to do a repeat of similar actions taken by government of Nepal a few years ago when it downgraded the salaries of RTI commissioners even before the first batch could complete its term. Such amendment proposals defeat the very purpose of installing autonomous bodies that judge the correctness of governmental action in denying access to information.”
Section 13 (5) of RTI Act provides that the salaries and allowances and other terms and conditions of service of the chief information commissioner and information commissioners shall be the same as that of the Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioner respectively.
Section 16 (5) of the Act provides that the salaries and allowances and other terms of service of the state chief information commissioner and state information commissioners shall be the same as the election commissioner and the chief secretary to the state government respectively.
There is a difference between constitutional body (Election Commission) and statutory body (Information Commission) so the status and service conditions of information commissioners need to be rationalised.
Source : Economic Times