NEW DELHI: The government will Friday introduce a bill to amend the RTI Act which will change pay and allowances of information commissioners, who currently enjoy benefits equivalent to election commissioners.
The move has been criticised by activists who said it will affect independence and neutrality of the transparency panel.
The bill proposes to amend the Right to Information Act, 2005 so as to provide that the term of office of, and the salaries, allowances and other terms and conditions of service of, the Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners and the State Chief Information Commissioner and the State Information Commissioners, "shall be such as may be prescribed by the Central Government.
"The proposed bill dated July 15 has been circulated among the members of Lok Sabha by Minister of State for Personnel Jitendra Singh. It will be introduced Friday, a highly placed official said.
"It states that term of offices, salaries, allowances and other terms and conditions shall be "as prescribed by the Central Government."
In the present form Section 13 (5) of the Right to Information Act provides that the salaries, allowances and other terms and conditions of the service of the Chief Information Commissioner shall be the same as that of the Chief Election Commissioner while that of an Information Commissioner shall be same as that of an Election Commissioner.
The amendment circulated by the Government states that the Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioners have salaries of a Supreme Court Judge which brings Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners at par with the apex court judges.
"The functions being carried out by the Election Commission of India and the Central and State Information Commissions are totally different. The Election Commission of India is a Constitutional body.
"On the other hand Central Information Commission and State Information Commission are statutory bodies established under the Right to Information Act, 2005," it said.
When it was circulated last year, the move had faced criticism from civil society members, activists and former Information Commissioners who had said that the move will take away independence of the Commissions, highest adjudicating bodies in the matter of the RTI Act.
Finally it was not introduced in the Parliament.
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.
When asked Congress leader in Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhary said his party will "fight tooth and nail" to oppose the amendment.
The country's first Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah told PTI that the status of EC was given to the organisation as it was "Government's own watchdog of its own functioning".
He said it is not a question of whether CIC or SIC are constitutional bodies or not but they are supposed to give a "neutral and unbiased" reports on the functioning of the Government and its constituents which is not possible without these powers.
Activist Commodore Lokesh Batra (Retd) said it is another attempt by the government to amend the RTI Act by taking away the autonomy of Information Commissions amounting to killing the citizens' "Right to know".
He said this too after the Supreme Court has already settled this issue in its Judgement of February 15, 2019 in PIL concerning timely appointments of Information Commissioner.
"It is a matter of grave concern that the government has brought about the bill in complete secrecy and there have been no public consultations on the bill which will impact the fundamental right to information of the citizens of the country.
"The government is in flagrant violation of the Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy of 2014 which mandates public disclosure and consultation on draft legislations," noted activist Anjali Bhardwaj said.
She said the rationale provided by the government for the amendments is that treating information commissioners are statutory bodies is "inherently flawed".
"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," she said.
Bhardwaj said at the time of finalising the RTI Act, the Standing Committee had noted that Information Commission is an "important creation under the Act which will execute the laudable scheme of the legislation.
It should, therefore, be ensured that it functions with utmost independence and autonomy.
It recommended that to achieve this objective, it would be desirable to confer on the central chief information commissioner and information commissioners, status of the chief election commissioner and election commissioners respectively, she said.
Former Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi also said the argument given by the government for amending the law seem facetious.