Plea Challenging Modified 2019 RTI Amendment Act Continue To Languish in Supreme Court
It’s all good for the Opposition political parties to cry foul about the ruling government’s questionable RTI Amendment Act of 2019, wherein the appointment and tenure of information commissioners have been diluted; but what stops the former from tenaciously pursuing it, particularly when the matter is already in the Supreme Court (SC)? What stops the SC from putting pressure on the government to respond, when the latter has turned a deaf ear to its directive to respond?
These are a few questions to be asked in the public interest litigation (PIL) filed by Congress leader Jairam Ramesh in the Supreme Court to challenge the amendments. He had stated that the BJP government has undermined the sanctity of the RTI Act through the RTI Amendment Act of 2019. Subsequently, the SC directed the government to respond way back in 2021 but there has been no communication from the government since then.
In October 2023, on the occasion of the 18th anniversary of the RTI Act, Mr Ramesh tweeted:
“Today is the 18th anniversary of the enactment of the historic Right to Information Act (RTI). It was transformative till 2014 at least. After that the Modi government has continually made attempts to weaken the law, dilute its provisions, appoint the PM's drumbeaters as its Commissioners and reject requests. The initial trigger for the amendments was because RTI revelations proved extremely embarrassing for the PM himself. I had challenged some of these amendments in the Supreme Court and I am still hoping that the petition will be heard soon since RTI is fast moving onto RIP/Om Shanti status.”
Mr Ramesh’s reason for filing the case in the highest judiciary was because the amendments to the appointment of information commissioners aimed at completely controlling the salaries, tenure and service conditions of the chief information commissioner and information commissioners.
Here is a recall of how the amendments have diluted these appointments. Earlier, the CIC and ICs (both at the Centre and state levels) held office for a fixed term of five years. The amendment suggests that the Central government will now be responsible for notifying the tenure of the CIC and ICs.
Additionally, the Bill alters the salary structure. Currently, the salaries of the CIC and ICs at the Central level are linked to those of the chief election commissioner and election commissioners, while, at the state level, they are linked to the election commissioners and chief secretary to the state government, respectively. The proposed changes give the Central government the authority to determine the salaries, allowances, and other terms and conditions of service for Central and state CIC and ICs.
Also, the Bill removes the existing provision that mandates a reduction in salary if the appointees are receiving pension or retirement benefits from previous government service which includes service under the Central or state government, corporations established under Central or state laws, and companies owned or controlled by the Central or state government.
Mr Ramesh had argued in the SC that the RTI Amendment Act of 2019 and its rules cripple the objectivity and independence of the central information commission (CIC) by bringing their appointments under the government. This, he argued, is an infringement on the fundamental rights guaranteed under Section 14 19 (a) and 21 of the Constitution of India. The Court observed that the amendment was in violation of the fundamental rights and, therefore, issued a notice to the government in January 2020 and then again in 2021. However, there has been no response from the government.
States Shailesh Gandhi, former CIC and RTI activist, “The petitioner can certainly take up the matter but whether it is the common man or powerful person, it’s a frustrating experience with the courts. As per the economic survey details provided by the finance minister in Parliament in 2018, the average time taken for court decisions in European courts is six months and in Indian courts, it is 30 months. However, the cases are kept pending much beyond that and the sad part is citizens do not raise their voice against these delays.”
Observes RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar, “This is a very sensitive case as it pertains to transparency. However, despite the Supreme Court having directed the central government to respond, it has not done so for more than a year. It shows the attitude of the government in wanting to dilute the RTI Act. In the case of this PIL, it’s clear that justice delayed is justice denied. The courts too keep delaying by giving tareekh pe tareekh. One of my personal cases is pending since 2016. Such inordinate delays are harming citizens through injustice to them. In most cases, the petitioner gets frustrated.”
Until then, the story of the reluctance to appoint information commissioners continues, be it in states or the central information commission.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also the convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting, which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain Award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book "To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte" with Vinita Kamte and is the author of "The Mighty Fall".)
3 months ago
The Judiciary carry on with the same alacrity as their fellows of equal erudition and intellectual acuteness: The receding glaciers of India.
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