NEW DELHI – Despite strong objection from the Opposition parties, the Lok Sabha on Monday passed the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 three days after it was introduced. It seeks to amend the landmark transparency law and bring in changes involving the salaries and tenures of Information Commissioners (ICs) at the States and Centre.
As per the amendment ICs — who currently have five-year tenures — will have “terms as may be prescribed by the central government” and salaries, instead of being on par with that of Election Commission officials, will be decided by the Central government.
Speaker Om Birla announced that the Bill was passed with 218 ‘yes’ votes as against 79 ‘no’ votes.
The Bill states that the functions being carried out by the Election Commission of India and the Central and State Information Commissions are totally different. The Election Commission is a Constitutional body. On the other hand the Central Information Commission and the State Information Commission are statutory bodies established under the Right to Information Act, 2005.
The Bill saw sharp opposition with allegations that the government was trying to dilute the effectiveness of the law. Some MPs even called it the ‘RTI Elimination Bill.’
Leader of the Congress in the House Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said, “The amendments they (Centre) are trying to bring are dangerous. They are trying to attack our democratic right to information. This government wants to keep a tab on the Commission, and kill its freedom.”
Mr. Chowdhury also accused the government of not having distributed copies of the Bill to members of the House two days in advance.
“This Bill is removing the two greatest armours of institutional independence and on top of that, by controlling the State Information Commissioners, by taking over the power to determine their salaries, the Central government is destroying it,” Congress MP Shashi Tharoor said.
“Are you bringing this amendment because an Information Commissioner asked the PMO to reveal the PM’s educational details? What is the hurry in bulldozing every Bill without scrutiny? Why is the government delaying constituting the parliamentary standing committees?”
DMK’s A. Raja dismissed the government’s argument that the CIC cannot be equated with the CEC since the former is a statutory body, while the latter is a constitutional body.
“Today is a dark day for democracy. Democracy is a continuous process, it doesn’t end with elections,” he said.
Arguing that this was the “blackest day’’ for democracy N.K. Premachandran, MP from Kollam, Kerala said: “This Bill weakens every known institution in the country and compromises the power of Parliament as well as the judiciary. It will adversely impact our democracy for benefiting the Central government and we cannot allow that to happen.”
Trinamool MP Prof. Saugata Roy, who stood to oppose the introduction of the Bill, said, “This Bill seeks to dilute the Information Commission of its powers.”
He alleged that of the 11 Bills passed by Parliament in the 17th Lok Sabha, no Bill has been sent for legislative scrutiny to the Standing Committee. AIMIM MP Asaduddin Owaisi said the Bill is anti-federal. “It lacks competence. It takes away the powers of the state.”
The government, however, argued that there is no question of degrading the information commissioners and it was only trying to remove some anomalies in the Act. “We are not interfering and will not do anything to affect the autonomy of the institution,” said Jitendra Singh, Minister for Personnel Department.