NEW DELHI: The proposed amendment to the RTI Act to take away the stature of information commissions from equivalent of the Election Commission will end their autonomy, transparency activists and former commissioners have said slamming the step, taken without consulting the Central Information Commission.
The activists have strongly opposed amendments to the Right to Information (RTI) Act proposed by the Centre, which aims to lower the stature of information commissions from equivalent to the Election Commission (EC) and do away with their five years fixed tenure.
Sources in the Central Information Commission (CIC) have said that it was not consulted by the government in the process.
According to the activists, the efficacy of the RTI Act, allowing any Indian to seek information from any authority on the payment of Rs 10, hinges closely on the independence of the CIC and its equivalents in the states -- state information commissions that adjudicate the matter in case information is not furnished to applicants within the parameters of the law.
The proposed amendments circulated among Members of Parliament seeks to do away with the parity given to information commissions with the EC in terms of salary, allowances and conditions of service.
"The salaries and allowances payable to and other terms and conditions of service of the chief information commissioner and the information commissioners shall be such as may be prescribed by the central government...," according to the proposed amendment.
It also aims to amend the tenure of information commissioners at the Centre and the states from "for a term of five years..." to "... terms as may be prescribed by the central government".
In the statement of objects and reasons of the bill, the government has said functions carried out by the EC and information commissions are completely different.
The EC is a constitutional body established by clause (1) of Article 324 of the Constitution, while the CIC and state information commissions are statutory bodies established under the provisions of the RTI Act, 2005, it said.
"Therefore, 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," it said.
Taking strong objection to the proposed bill, a statement signed by activists Anjali Bhardwaj, Nikhil Dey, Pradip Pradhan, Rakesh Dubbudu, Pankti Jog, Venkatesh Nayak, Dr Shaikh, said the principle of according a high stature, and protecting the terms of service by equating it to functionaries of constitutional bodies, is routinely adopted for independent statutory oversight bodies, including the Central Vigilance Commission and the Lokpal.
"The status conferred on commissioners under the RTI Act is to empower them to carry out their functions autonomously and require even the highest offices to comply with the provisions of the law," it said.
It said the proposed amendments to the RTI Act will completely destroy the autonomy of information commissions set up under the RTI Act to adjudicate on appeals and complaints of people who have been denied their rights under the RTI Act.
Not only the activists, former information commissioners, too, criticised the move.
The first chief information commissioner, Wajahat Habibullah, also termed the move as a "regressive proposal", which will compromise the independence and autonomy of the CIC and the SICs.
"The stature was given to the CIC and the SICs work independent of the government pressure.
The argument that the CIC cannot have the stature of the EC, which is a constitutional body, is flawed as it is the requirement of job done at these commissions, he said.
Another former chief information commissioner A N Tiwari said these changes will make the information commissions "limp" bodies.
"The argument given by the government to downgrade and arbitrarily decide the position, salaries and term for the information commissioners by amending the law seem facetious, former central information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi said.
He said the changes will reduce their impact on senior public servants and it may be a "trial balloon" to carry out further amendments to weaken it later.
Gandhi said "another sinister plot" may be to render the CIC dysfunctional as by the end of the year it will be left with just three information commissioners.
"The government is not appointing new commissioners probably pending the amendment," he said.