Headline : Incisive interventions that blunt the RTI’s edge Editorial 10th Aug’19 TheHindu
Meaning of Democracy:
- Democracy has to percolate beyond the bare promises of formal political equality.
- Along with a system of popular sovereignty founded in universal adult franchise, it also assures a set of rights, among others, to a freedom of expression, life and personal liberty, and equal opportunity and status.
- India’s Constitution provides a framework for governance by pledging to people a set of inviolable guarantees.
Need to negotiate with the State to realize the rights of democracy:
- Realising the full value of those guarantees at times requires a negotiation with the state.
- Lead to RTI:
- One such negotiation resulted in the enactment in 2005 of the Right to Information Act (RTI Act).
- The law proved transformative to India’s democracy; it revolutionised the citizen’s ability to engage with the state, and bring out uncomfortable truths about the government.
Importance of RTI Act
Information fundamental to freedom of expression:
- Information often acts as a great leveller, and helps in taking up democratic action.
- Therefore, for democracy to be valuable, citizens must possess a right to freely express themselves.
- It ought to follow then that it is only when citizens have a right to know what the state is up to, where governance is transparent, can their speech have genuine meaning; only then can they constructively participate in the veritable marketplace of ideas.
Empowerment of citizens:
- Citizens are also empowered under the RTI Act to seek and obtain any information from public authorities, barring a few exempted categories.
- This freedom to secure information that the law provides has helped open the government up to greater scrutiny.
Important role of CIC and ICs in effectiveness of RTI Act:
- It is when a plea for information goes unheeded that the CIC and the ICs play an especially vital role.
- Should the initial request for information made to a public information office fails, the petitioner is entitled to lodge an appeal to an authority within the department concerned.
- Should that also fail, a further appeal can be made to the office of the CIC or the State Information Commission.
Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019
- The government recently got the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 passed in Parliament, to amend the RTI Act to dilute the statutorily fixed tenure and service conditions of Information Commissioners.
Term of Information Commissioners:
- The Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners (appointed at the central and state level) have a fixed term of five years.
- The amendment bill proposes to change the period of office of Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioner as for such term as may be prescribed by the Central Government.
Determination of salary:
- The Act states that the salary of the CIC and ICs (at the central level) will be equivalent to the salary paid to the Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioners, respectively.
- Similarly, the salary of the CIC and ICs (at the state level) will be equivalent to the salary paid to the Election Commissioners and the Chief Secretary to the state government, respectively.
- The salary, allowances, and terms and conditions of service of the CIC and the ICs will be determined by executive guidelines.
Reason for the amendments:
- The government said tha thte Information Commission was a statutory body and it was an anomaly to equate it to a constitutional body like Election Commission.
- The mandate of Election Commission of India and Central and State Information Commissions are different. Hence, their status and service conditions need to be rationalised accordingly.
Criticism of the amendments
It undermines the Freedom of Expression:
- At the first look, the amendments might not strike as being especially harmful.
- But the RTI Act is not an ordinary statute. It is a law that provides the basic right to freedom of information. Although such a right is not enumerated in the Constitution, the Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed its position as intrinsic to the right to freedom of expression.
- Citizens have a right to know what the state is up to, and take decisions or express themselves, and RTI enables this. If it is ineffective, freedom of expression of citizens is undermined.
ICs may come under political influence:
- Until now, the RTI Act granted an acceptable level of independence to ICs.
- By placing their terms of service on a par with those of the ECs the law insulated the ICs from political influence.
- The idea is that security in office is imperative if members must intervene without fear or favour to ensure that the law’s mandate is met.
- The RTI Act, in its original form, was far from flawless, especially in that it did not do enough to open up public authorities to complete scrutiny. But the present amendments, far from strengthening the existing regime, subvert the independence of the information commission.
- With the withering of that independence, the right to freedom of information also begins to lose its thrust.
GS Paper II: Polity & Governance