Social activist Aruna Roy speaks to Anindo Dey (The Times of India)

Social activist Aruna Roy speaks to Anindo Dey (The Times of India)

-The Times of India blog

Last week, NDA government succeeded in getting contentious amendments to RTI Act passed by Parliament. Social activist Aruna Roy, who was at the forefront of the movement to persuade Parliament to enact the original law, speaks to Anindo Dey about the development:

* The government said the RTI Act amendments set right the anomaly of the Information Commissions, which are statutory bodies, being treated on a par with the Election Commission, a constitutional body. What is the problem with this?

There is nothing legally which prevents the Information Commissions from being equated with the EC. In fact this was a positive provision passed unanimously by the Parliament, on the recommendation of the standing committee, where NDA members played an important part. Other statutory posts – CVC and Lokpal – have also been treated on a par with constitutional posts to ensure independent functioning. These amendments demonstrate that the government is clearly threatened by independent Information Commissions.

* What are the fears of the government?

RTI empowers the citizen to question power, and this government is clearly uncomfortable with the information citizens are managing to extract from government. Many important questions have been asked of the political power elite over the years, including about electoral funding, non-performing assets, accuracy of information provided in electoral affidavits, spectrum allotments and defence deals. Over 60 lakh applications are filed every year asking for information. No one in power wants to be really transparent or held accountable.

* How will the amendment affect the independence of the Information Commission?

The five-year tenure without transfer or interference guaranteed by law, gave the commissioner full freedom to work independently to implement the law. When the government arrogates to itself the powers to fix tenure, status, salaries, terms and conditions, they will be the de facto masters. They can then control the nature of orders, and exercise power to influence all decisions.

* What are the other issues to consider in this amendment?

This Bill gives the central government the power to decide the tenure and compensation of even the State Information Commissioners. Such an amendment goes against the claims of the prime minister of his belief in federalism.

* Isn’t it the prerogative of government to use its parliamentary majority to pass legislation?

To begin with, the government should frankly disclose the reason for pushing through such an amendment. They should also realise deliberation is as much a part of democracy as the vote. Having an electoral majority does not give them the right to ride roughshod over people’s views. In a democracy, the people are sovereign, and they have a right to question their representative at all times and participate in decision making. Transparency and RTI are essential to a strong participatory democracy. A parliamentary majority cannot take away the rights of people who voted them in. These amendments were not part of their election manifesto, and therefore there is no basis to asserting a connection with an electoral majority.

* Do you think the opposition’s demand that the Bill be sent to a select committee was just a tactic of delay?

The demand to send such an important Bill to a parliamentary committee for scrutiny and examination, is both reasonable and necessary. It would have given citizens and experts an opportunity to testify before the committee, so that proper deliberation could take place. There has been no public consultation, in complete contravention of the law ministry’s mandatory “pre-legislative consultative policy”. The government has refused to involve citizens in this debate and rammed the Bill through both Houses, without sending it to a standing committee or a select committee. In previous attempts to amend the RTI Act and the rules, by UPA and NDA, limited public consultation did take place. This unseemly haste, to unilaterally push through an unpopular amendment is undemocratic. It is clearly motivated by narrow, partisan interests.

* Will these amendments render the RTI Act completely useless? What do you plan to do next?

Access to information does not owe its existence as a right, to RTI. The right to information has been recognised as a fundamental right under Part III of the Constitution by the Supreme Court in several cases. The RTI Act, 2005, simply provided an extended regime for enabling effective implementation of the fundamental right to information. While the appeals to the Commissions will be drastically affected by this decision, RTI activists have been through years of struggle to make a strong Act against great odds. Therefore, the response must be even more determined. A powerful RTI movement must checkmate the government and demand that Information Commissions be formally made into constitutional bodies. That will be in consonance with the demands of the people, and the stated objective of government that they want to strengthen the Act.
 
The Times of India blog, 29 July, 2019, please click here to access 
 
Image Courtesy: The Times of India

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