The Centre has curtailed the tenure of information commissioners in transparency panels across the country to three years in new RTI rules notified Thursday night, a move activists call an assault on their independence and autonomy.
The Centre had amended the Right to Information Act, 2005 in July ending the parity enjoyed by Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners with Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioners on terms and conditions of their service and tenure.
The Right to Information (Term of Office, Salaries, Allowances and Other Terms and Conditions of Service of Chief Information Commissioner, Information Commissioners in the Central Information Commission, State Chief Information Commissioner and State Information Commissioners in the State Information Commission) Rules, 2019 will be applicable on the new appointments.
The new rules have given discretion to government to decide on allowances or service conditions not specifically covered by the 2019 rules which would be "binding". The government has also kept powers to relax any of these rules.
The tenure of the commissioners has been cut to three years in the new rules. The 2005 Act gave them a fixed tenure of five years or a retirement age of 65 years, whichever is earlier.
This was done to ensure that Information Commissioners can use their powers even with the senior-most officers of the administration without any fear of their jobs, activists said.
The salary of Chief Information Commissioner has been fixed at Rs 2.50 lakh while that of Information Commissioners at Rs 25,000 less.
Reacting to the development, several activists expressed disappointment expressing fears that commissions, which are the highest adjudicating bodies in RTI matter, will be relegated to any other government department.
"As the parity between the Information Commissions and the Election Commission of India has been downgraded to babu-level, it is highly unlikely that in a situation where the rule of law is not a very strongly embedded value in the bureaucracy, that senior babus in the administration will ever be hauled up before the Information Commissions for not complying with the provisions of the RTI Act," activist Venkatesh Nayak said.
He said it is an inherent trait of the bureaucracy to equate seniority, authority and power with pay grades.
"This adversely affects the prestige and the ability of the Information Commissions to do their appointed job under the RTI Act," he said.
He claimed that the central government will be in control of all Information Commissions as it will be the final arbiters in all matters of interpretation of these 2019 rules.
Another activist Anjali Bhardwaj slammed the government for ignoring public consultation policy in framing the rules.
"The government drafted and promulgated the rules in a completely surreptitious manner in flagrant violation of the procedures laid down in the Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy of 2014. The policy requires all draft rules to be placed in the public domain for comments/suggestions of people. The draft was not available in the public domain and no consultations were held with members of the public," she said.
Rule 22 states that the central government has the power to relax the provisions of any of the rules in respect of any class or category of persons, she said.
"This raises serious concerns that the government could potentially invoke these powers to determine different tenures for different commissioners at the time of appointment," she said.
Ms Bhardwaj said the chief and other election commissioners are paid a salary equal to that of a judge of the Supreme Court, which is decided by Parliament, thereby providing insulation from government control.
"The rules made by the central government have done away with the protection of stature of commissioners...The removal of the provision guaranteeing equivalence to other posts (Chief Election Commissioner, Election Commissioners, Chief Secretaries) means that salaries of information commissioners will be revised only if the central government decides to revise the rules," she said.
Activist Commodore Lokesh Batra (retd) said the government will have full control on the Commission and its autonomy is now questionable.