Incisive interventions that blunt the RTI's edge -Suhrith Parthasarathy
With the kernel of the Information Act under threat, the independence of the information commission is in peril
When we describe India as a democracy what do we really mean? Are we referring merely to a system of popular sovereignty founded in universal adult franchise? Or are we suggesting something more — perhaps an assurance, grounded in the Constitution, of a set of rights, of the rights, among others, to a freedom of expression, life and personal liberty, and equal opportunity and status?
These are questions, as Astra Taylor argues in her remarkable new book, Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone, that we must perpetually ask ourselves. If nothing else to remind oneself that while there can be reasonable disagreements over how a republic ought to be structured, seeing democracy as purely an enforcement of majoritarian will, where the only end in mind is the selection of a representative government, leads to self-rule “becoming not a promise but a curse”. Evidence throughout history has shown us that just results do not necessarily follow from a simple guarantee of equal status enshrined in a right to vote. The wealthy and the dominant classes find uncanny ways to ensure concentration of power. Democracy, therefore, has to percolate beyond the bare promises of formal political equality.
It is to this end that India’s Constitution provides a framework for governance by pledging to people a set of inviolable guarantees. But realising the full value of those guarantees at times requires a parley with the state. It was one such long battle, fought over nearly two decades, driven by the unstinting efforts of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, that resulted in the enactment in 2005 of the Right to Information Act (RTI Act). By any account, the law proved transformative to India’s democracy; it revolutionised the citizen’s ability to engage with the state, arming people with a mechanism to ferret out some of the truth from the government’s otherwise secretive operations.
Today, though, the kernel of the RTI Act is under threat. New amendments have been passed without subjecting the draft law to scrutiny by a parliamentary committee. A feature common to every law enacted by Parliament in its present session, this portends the reduction of governance to a form of democracy by crude acclamation. The changes made include an alteration to the term in office of the information commissioners (ICs) and to the manner of determination of their salaries. In place of the existing five-year term accorded to the Central Information Commissioner (CIC) and the various ICs the law grants to the Union government the power to notify their terms through executive regulations. What is more, the amendment deletes the RTI Act’s mandate that the salary paid to the CIC and the ICs ought to be equivalent to that paid respectively to the Chief Election Commissioner and the Election Commissioners (ECs). Now, the salary, allowances, and terms and conditions of service of the CIC and the ICs will be determined by executive guidelines.
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