by Ashish Kumar Singh & Margarita Denisnova Minaeva

The Right to Information (Amendment) Act, 2019 was passed by both the houses of parliament in July 2019. The opposition parties had been arguing against the proposed changes in the Right to Information Act of 2005 through this amendment. The Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act, 2005) came in existence after a long movement against transparency and accountability in governance. It enabled all citizens of India the right to access information from public authorities. The Right to Information Act, 2005 was enacted with the aim to “provide for setting out the practical regime of right to information for citizens to secure access to information under the control of public authorities, in order to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority, the constitution of a Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.” (Ministry of Law and Justice, 2005)

The Act provided for a Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) and Information Commissioners (ICs) at the centre and state levels, who would hold office for a term of five years. Furthermore, the salaries of Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners (at the centre level) would be equivalent to the salaries paid to the Chief Election Commissioner and Information Commissioners respectively (Sinha, 2019).  Similarly, the salaries of CICs and ICs at the state level would be similar to that of the Election Commissioners and the Chief Secretary to the state government, respectively. (Ibid) The Act also provided that at the time of appointment if the CICs and ICs are receiving pension or any other retirement benefits for previous government service, their salaries will be reduced by an amount equal to the pension. (Ibid)

The Right to Information (Amendment) Act, 2019, changed the provisions related to the term of office stating that the central government will notify the term of office for the CIC and ICs.  It changed the provisions of the RTI Act, 2005 related to salaries and allowances with that salaries, allowances, and other terms and conditions of service of the central and state CIC and ICs will be determined by the central government. The provisions related to deduction of salaries have been removed by this act.

Given the background, this review seeks to answer how the new Right to Information (Amendment) Act, 2019 was covered in the mainstream Indian media? The review uses English mainstream newspapers such as Times of India, The Hindu, Hindustan Times, The Pioneer, News18, The Indian Express and The Wire to present its findings.

Newspapers (The Hindu 2019a, The Wire 2019a, The Hindu 2019b) reported the introduction of the bill in the Lok Sabha saying that this bill seeks to hand over the control over the salaries and tenures of information commissioners to the Union government, and that in essence the draft bill was basically the “RTI elimination bill” which would act as a threat to the independence of the Central Information Commission (The Hindu 2019b, The Wire 2019b). Newspapers also published detailed pieces explaining provisions of the amendment act and why there has been an opposition to such amendments (Times of India 2019a, Times of India 2019b, News18 2019a),

 

The activists in India have opposed the changes brought in by the Right to Information (Amendment) Act, 2019 (The Hindu 2019a, Malkarnekar 2019, Hindustan Times 2019a, Kamath 2019, The Pioneer 2019a, Times of India 2019c, Nambiar 2019, The Indian Express 2019a). Former Chief Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi (Banerjee 2019, Jebaraj 2019a) said that the proposed changes to the RTI Act were introduced in complete secrecy “without any public disclosure and consultation on draft legislations.” The provisions of the 2019 Act would bring patronage in appointments of CIC and ICs. Former Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah, and ex-information commissioners Yashovardhan Azad and M Sridhar Acharyulu raised their objections to the amendmentill saying that independence of an institution lies in continuity and certainty in terms of service (The Indian Express 2019b). Acharyulu wrote to Chief Ministers of Odisha, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh asking them explain the RTI Amendment Act to understand why they supported it, reported The Indian Express (2019c). The National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information (NCPRI) demanded that the proposed changes in the RTI 2005 be withdrawn with immediate effect as the new changes would empower the Centre to unilaterally decide the tenure, salary, allowances and other terms of service of information commissioners at the Centre and in the States. (Jebaraj 2019b)

Nair (2019) reported that political parties (BJD, Congress, CPI, CPM, DMK and others) signed a resolution against the changes suggested in the RTI (Amendment) Act, 2019, as it would weaken the authority of the information commission. Political parties across spectrum have criticized the RTI (Amendment) Bill, 2019 within and outside parliament (Hindustan Times 2019b, The Pioneer 2019b, Manoj C G 2019a, The Indian Express 2019d, News18 2019b). Congress leader Shashi Tharoor said that the new act would make the RTI Act 2005 a toothless tiger (Times of India, 2019d, The Indian Express 2019e). Responding to the criticism, the Minister of State in PMO Jitendra Singh said that the proposed changes are to correct anomalies of the RTI ACT 2005 (Mohua Chatterjee 2019, Ahmad & Anmolam 2019, The Indian Express 2019f, Manoj CG 2019b).

Roy and Dey (2019) argue that the RTI, in the past, has helped verifying powerful electoral candidates’ affidavits, as certain Information Commissioners having ruled in favour of discloser. The RTI has empowered citizens by providing them access to power and decision-making. The proposed amendments are aimed to centralise power, as a deliberate action to affect power equations, the freedom of expression and democracy. (Ibid)

Since the Right to Information Act 2005 was brought in 2005 when Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was in power in centre, and Sonia Gandhi was the President of the Congress party, her statements were covered by all major news outlets in India. She said that over 60 lakh people have benefitted from the RTI act, and that it had brought transparency and accountability at all levels of administration (The Hindu 2019c, Times of India 2019e, Hindustan Times 2019c, The Indian Express 2019g) Congress leader Rahul Gandhi also attacked the amendments proposed by the central government saying that the government is diluting the RTI Act in order to help corrupt steal from India (Hindustan Times 2019d, News18 2019c, The Pioneer 2019c).  Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who has led a movement against corruption in India, said that the new act will end the independence of information commissions (The Pioneer 2019d, News18 2019d). Social Activist Anna Hazare, a leading figure of anti-corruption movement in India, criticized the government saying that it has betrayed the people of India (The Pioneer 2019e).

Azad and Acharyulu (2019) wrote an article titled “RTI: A bill that may kill a right” in the Hindustan Times. The article argued that RTI has emerged from right to expression given under Article 19(A) of Indian Constitution. This has been stated by the Supreme Court of India as well. More and more poor people seek recourse to justice through RTI. It directly impacts governance, especially the public delivery system and exposes corruption. Therefore, the proposed amendment of RTI should be decided only after a public discussion. (Ibid)

Devasahayam (2019) in a story titled “Who’s Afraid of the RTI Act?” said that the government introduced the amendment in complete secrecy, making the process undemocratic. The contents of the bill were not known to MPs, citizens and media until it was circulated to the Lok Sabha members on the eve of its introduction. (Ibid)

Dasgupta (2019) wrote in a column published in The Pioneer that the amendment was harmless, and has been opposed by the activist lobby whose sole job is to file petitions on a wholesale basis. Some of them even use the information sought under RTI to threaten or blackmail. Adding further, Dasgupta (2019) argues that due to the fear of misjudgement and subsequently being exposed many government departments have stopped taking initiatives and take actions where existing norms are not a guide.

The review shows that there was a huge uproar inside and outside of the Parliament against the Right to Information (Amendment) Act 2019, as the Right to Information Act 2005 was considered a monumental act towards establishing a transparent, democratic and accountable government. The BJP-led NDA government is in majority and hence it did not face any problems in passing the bill in both houses. Only time will show how the amendments introduced by the 2019 Act will impact the citizens’ quest for an accountable government structure.

 

References

“Activists protest RTI Act Amendment Bill,” The Pioneer,  July 22, 2019a, https://www.dailypioneer.com/2019/state-editions/activists-protest-rti-act-amendment-bill.html.

Farheen Ahmad and Anmolam, “Subverting the RTI regime”, The Hindu, July 23, 2019, https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/subverting-the-rti-regime/article28658159.ece.

“Amending RTI Act will end independence of information commissions: Kejriwal,”  The Pioneer, July 22,  2019d, https://www.dailypioneer.com/2019/top-stories/amending-rti-act-will-end-independence-of-information-commissions–kejriwal.html.

“Amending RTI Act Will End Independence of Information Commissions, Says Delhi CM Kejriwal,” News18,  July 22, 2019d, https://www.news18.com/news/india/amending-rti-act-will-end-independence-of-information-commissions-says-delhi-cm-kejriwal-2240461.html.

“Amendment to RTI Act, assault on citizen rights,” Times of India, August 5, 2019c,  https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/mumbai/amendment-to-rti-act-assault-on-citizen-rights/articleshow/70529577.cms.

“Amendments to RTI Act regressive, protest dilution, says NAPM,” The Indian Express, July 23,  2019a, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/amendments-to-rti-act-regressive-says-napm-calls-for-nationwide-protest-5844330/.

“Amid Opposition uproar, Lok Sabha nod to RTI amendment Bill,” The Indian Express, July 23, 2019f,  https://indianexpress.com/article/india/amid-opposition-uproar-lok-sabha-nod-to-rti-amendment-bill-5842891/.

“Amid Protests, RTI Amendment Bill Introduced in the Lok Sabha,”  The Wire, July 19, 2019a, https://thewire.in/rights/amid-protests-rti-amendment-bill-introduced-in-the-lok-sabha.

Yashovardhan Azad and M. Sridhar Acharyulu, “RTI: A bill that may kill a right,” Hindustan Times, July 22, 2019, https://www.hindustantimes.com/analysis/rti-a-bill-that-may-kill-a-right/story-EkYRO9yihrPgOoexQJaCGJ.html.

Shoumojit Banerjee, “Centre’s decision to bring amendments to RTI Act draws criticism from activists,” The Hindu, July 22, 2019, https://www.thehindu.com/news/states/centres-decision-to-bring-amendments-to-rti-act-draws-criticism-from-activists/article28629973.ece.

Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar,”Centre Changed RTI Law and Rules on Salaries, Tenures Without Consulting CIC,” The Wire, November 29, 2019, https://thewire.in/government/rti-amendment-cic-consultation.

“BJD, TRS, YSRCP’s help gets RTI bill through Rajya Sabha,” Times of India, July 26, 2019,  https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/bjd-trs-ysrcps-help-gets-rti-bill-through-rajya-sabha/articleshow/70387163.cms.

“Centre disempowering every citizen: Sonia Gandhi on RTI Act amendment,” Times of India, July 23, 2019e,  https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/centre-disempowering-every-citizen-sonia-gandhi-on-rti-act-amendment/articleshow/70340799.cms.

Mohua Chatterjee , “LS clears RTI bill as opposition walks out,” Times of India, July 23, 2019, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/ls-clears-rti-bill-as-oppotion-walks-out/articleshow/70337773.cms.

Swapan Dasgupta,”RTI Act needs more changes for efficacy,” The Pioneer,July 28, 2019,  https://www.dailypioneer.com/2019/columnists/rti-act-needs-more-changes-for-efficacy.html.

M.G. Devasahayam, “Who’s Afraid of the RTI Act?” The Wire, July 27, 2019, https://thewire.in/rights/whos-afraid-of-the-rti-act.

“Ex-info commissioners take on RTI (Amendment) Bill: Absurd to say CIC office lacks Constitutional status,” The Indian Express, July 25, 2019b, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/ex-info-commissioners-take-on-rti-amendment-bill-absurd-to-say-cic-office-lacks-constitutional-status/.

“Explain your support to RTI amendment bill: Ex-CIC asks three CMs,” The Indian Express, July 26, 2019c, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/explain-your-support-to-rti-amendment-bill-ex-cic-asks-three-cms-5854850/.

  1. Govardan, “Amendments to RTI Act will deflate its power, Dhinakaran says,” Times of India, July 23, 2019, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/chennai/amendments-to-rti-act-will-deflate-its-power-dhinakaran-says/articleshow/70348064.cms.

“Govt diluting RTI Act to help corrupt people steal: Rahul,” The Pioneer, July 27, 2019c,  https://www.dailypioneer.com/2019/top-stories/govt-diluting-rti-act-to-help-corrupt-people-steal–rahul.html.

“Govt murders RTI, tweets Rahul Gandhi, days after bill passes Rajya Sabha test,” Hindustan Times, July 27, 2019d, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/govt-murders-rti-tweets-rahul-gandhi-days-after-bill-passes-rajya-sabha-test/story-5JzXScTPanym5islWvfUqK.html.

Priscilla Jebaraj, “Diluting RTI Act to impact daily fight against corruption,” The Hindu, July 23, 2019b, https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Delhi/diluting-rti-act-to-impact-daily-fight-against-corruption/article28665098.ece.

Priscilla Jebaraj, “Centre won’t take Central Information Commission’s orders seriously,” The Hindu, July 24, 2019a,  https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/centre-wont-take-central-information-commissions-orders-seriously/article28701866.ece.

Naresh Kamath, “Mumbai Activists vow to oppose RTI amendment, seek support,” Hindustan Times, August 5, 2019, https://www.hindustantimes.com/mumbai-news/activists-vow-to-oppose-rti-amendment-seek-support/story-N0WhhHD2eWICO0DYD8l4sM.html.

“Learning with the Times: What new amendments mean for Right to Information Act,” Times of India, July 28, 2019b, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/learning-with-the-times-what-new-amendments-mean-for-right-to-information-act/articleshow/70415670.cms.

“Lok Sabha passes Bill RTI Act amidst strong objection from Opposition,”, The Hindu,  July 22, 2019 https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/lok-sabha-passes-bill-amending-rti-act-amidst-strong-objection-from-opposition/article28650449.ece.

“Lok Sabha passes RTI (Amendment) Bill; will make panel ‘toothless tiger’, says Opposition,” The Indian Express   July 22, 2019e, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/bills-amending-rti-act-human-rights-bodies-passed-in-parliament-5842592/.

“Lok Sabha Passes RTI Amendment Bill, Oppn Calls it Attempt to Undermine Transparency Law,” News18, July 22, 2019b, https://www.news18.com/news/politics/lok-sabha-passes-rti-amendment-bill-opposition-calls-it-deliberate-attempt-to-undermine-law-2241291.html.

“LS passes RTI Amendment Bill amid strong objections by opposition,” Times of India, July 22, 2019d, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/ls-passes-rti-amendment-bill-amid-strong-objections-by-opposition/articleshow/70331804.cms.

Gauree Malkarnekar, “RTI amendment sad for democracy: Goa RTI Forum,” Times of India, July 27, 2019, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/goa/rti-amendment-sad-for-democracy-goa-rti-forum/articleshow/70413576.cms.

C.G. Manoj, “RTI Bill set to face rough weather in Rajya Sabha,” The Indian Express,  July 24, 2019a, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/rti-bill-set-to-face-rough-weather-in-rajya-sabha-5846320/.

C.G. Manoj, “Opposition says RTI diluted, Government assures autonomy,” The Indian Express, July 26, 2019b, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/opposition-says-rti-diluted-government-assures-autonomy-5852727/.

“Modi Govt ‘Diluting’ RTI Act to ‘Help the Corrupt Steal from India’, Says Rahul Gandhi,” News18, July 27, 2019c, https://www.news18.com/news/politics/rahul-ganhi-says-modi-govt-diluting-rti-act-to-help-corrupt-people-steal-2248501.html.

“Modi Govt has betrayed people: Anna Hazare on RTI Act changes,” The Pioneer, July 24, 2019e, https://www.dailypioneer.com/2019/india/modi-govt-has-betrayed-people–anna-hazare-on-rti-act-changes.html.

Sobhana K. Nair, “Scrutinise RTI Bill: Opposition,” The Hindu, July 23, 2019,  https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/scrutinise-rti-bill-opposition/article28692034.ece.

Nisha Nambiar, “RTI activists write to President to reject amendments to RTI Act,” Times of India, July 27, 2019, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/pune/rti-activists-write-to-president-to-reject-amendments-to-rti-act/articleshow/70402862.cms.

“Parliament approves amendment to RTI act,” The Pioneer, July 25, 2019, https://www.dailypioneer.com/2019/top-stories/parliament-approves-amendment-to-rti-act.html.

“Parliament approves RTI amendment; RS negates demand for select committee New Delhi,” The Indian Express, July 25, 2019b, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/parliament-approves-rti-amendment-rs-negates-demand-for-select-committee-new-delhi-5852278/.

“Rajya Sabha Passes RTI Amendment Bill by Voice Vote Amid Opposition Walkout and Criticism,” News18, July 25,  2019, https://www.news18.com/news/politics/rajya-sabha-approves-rti-amendment-bill-amid-opposition-walkout-2245925.html.

Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey, “The tremor of unwelcome amendments to the RTI Act,” The Hindu, 2019, July 22, https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-tremor-of-unwelcome-amendments/article28628537.ece.

“RS clears RTI Act changes amid Opp protest, walkout,” The Pioneer, July 26, 2019b, https://www.dailypioneer.com/2019/page1/rs-clears-rti-act-changes–amid-opp-protest–walkout.html.

“RTI Act | Why Are Activists and Opposition Parties Objecting to RTI Amendment Bill?” News18, July 24, 2019a, https://www.news18.com/news/india/rti-act-why-are-activists-and-opposition-parties-objecting-to-rti-amendment-bill-2-2244201.html.

“RTI Act on the brink of extinction: Sonia Gandhi,” The Hindu, July 23, 2019c, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/rti-act-on-the-brink-of-extinction-sonia-gandhi/article28669033.ece.

“RTI Amendment bill passed in Lok Sabha; Congress alleges it is ‘RTI elimination bill’,” Hindustan Times, July 22, 2019b, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/rti-amendment-bill-passed-in-lok-sabha-congress-alleges-it-is-rti-elimination-bill/story-itp5zc9jA1hBFbrmgpLocJ.html.

“RTI Amendment Bill to be introduced in Lok Sabha today,” The Hindu, July 19, 2019a, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/rti-amendment-bill-to-be-introduced-in-lok-sabha-today/article28569339.ece.

“RTI Amendment Bill: Explained,” Times of India, July 23, 2019a, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/rti-amendment-bill-explained/articleshow/70341996.cms.

“RTI amendment threatens freedom of information, believe Pune activists,” Hindustan Times, July 22, 2019a, https://www.hindustantimes.com/pune-news/rti-amendment-threatens-freedom-of-information-believe-pune-activists/story-X5w4Asg76FBd0itbAEh3FN.html.

“RTI Bill introduced amid Opposition flak,” The Hindu,  July 19, 2019b, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/rti-bill-introduced-amid-opposition-flak/article28599176.ece.

“RTI act stands on brink of extinction, says Sonia Gandhi,” Hindustan Times, July 23, 2019c, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/rti-on-brink-of-extinction-central-govt-wants-to-subvert-act-sonia-gandhi/story-5COHMrCTAjKIEa1oyPQLsK.html.

“Send RTI amendment bill back to Parliament for reconsideration: ex-CIC,” The Indian Express, July 26, 2019, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/send-rti-amendment-bill-back-to-parliament-for-reconsideration-ex-cic-5854904/.

Roshni Sinha,  “Explainer: The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019,” PRS Legislative Research,  July 19, 2019, https://www.prsindia.org/theprsblog/explainer-right-information-amendment-bill-2019.

“Sonia Gandhi: Centre sees RTI Act as nuisance, now stands on brink of extinction,” The Indian Express,  July 23, 2019g, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/sonia-gandhi-rti-act-amendment-brink-of-extinction-centre-government-considers-it-nuisance-5843651/.

“The Right to Information Act, 2005,”  Ministry of Law and Justice, October 12,  2005, https://rti.gov.in/rti-act.pdf.


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