What new amendments mean for Right to Information Act

The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019, was passed in the Rajya Sabha on Thursday amid high drama and an Opposition walkout. The Opposition says the changes put forth in the bill, which had already cleared the Lok Sabha, undermine the independence of the RTI watchdog. The government has argued that the amendments leave the information officials’ powers untouched and are aimed at streamlining the commission. A look at the changes being effected by the amended Act

1. No fixed tenure, or salaries, Centre says it’s a statutory body: The amendments do away with the fixed tenure of five years for the Chief Information Commissioner and the Information Commissioners — instead, they will serve for a tenure determined by the central government.

Also, the Centre can now determine the salary of the CIC and the ICs, which is currently benchmarked with the salary of the Chief Election Commissioner and the Election Commissioners, respectively, which in turn is benchmarked with the salary of a Supreme Court judge, amounts to Rs.2.5 lakh per month, along with a monthly allowance of Rs.34,000 and the usual perks like rent-free furnished housing and 200 litres of fuel every month.

After the amendments, the government has the power to fix the salary, which could be lower — given that the Information Commission is a statutory body unlike the EC, which is a constitutional body. However, the current incumbents’ salaries will not be affected by the amendment.

2. Centre to decide appointments, even for state CIC, ICs: Currently, the CIC and ICs are chosen by a three-member panel of the PM, the Leader of Opposition or leader of the largest opposition party in the Lok Sabha and a Cabinet minister nominated by the PM. Similarly, the State Chief Information Commissioners and State Information Commissioners are chosen by a three-member panel of the CM, the state’s leader of opposition or leader of the largest opposition party in the state assembly and a state Cabinet minister nominated by the CM.

The amendments give the power to appoint and decide the term as well as the salary of SCIC and SICs to the Centre — which nullifies the independence of the state legislatures. Even the CIC and the ICs will serve at the pleasure of the government — raising the possibility that they would be more interested in ensuring the longevity of their tenures rather than serving the citizens’ interests.

3. Extended tenures possible : Current rules stipulate that no CIC, IC, SCIC or SIC can serve more than one term, which is for a maximum period of 5 years or till the age of 65, whichever is earlier. For ICs and SICs, if one of them is nominated to the post of CIC or SCIC, his/her total tenure as both IC and CIC or SIC and SCIC cannot exceed 5 years. Since the amended Act gives the government the power to fix tenures, there’s every likelihood that an incumbent seen as pliable or ‘friendly’ to the Centre may get to serve more than one term.

4. And termination in Centre’s hands? If the tenure of the CIC, IC, SCIC and SIC are to be fixed by the Centre, it may follow that their removal from office may also be dependent on the Centre, whereas in the original bill, the CIC and IC may be removed only by the President — and the state governor in case of SCIC and SIC — after an inquiry by the Supreme Court finds reason for their dismissal from office.

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