A voice of dissent has emerged from within the Central Information Commission against the proposed changes in the RTI Act, which many argue would "weaken" information commissions, with a Commissioner urging the panel to write to the government for withdrawing the controversial amendment bill.
With Chief Information Commissioner RK Mathur on leave, Information Commissioner Sridhar Acharyulu on July 19 wrote to seniormost Commissioner Yashovardhan Azad to convene a meeting of all Information Commissioners on the subject, sources in the know of developments have said.
The PTI has a copy of the letter that also says the proposed Bill intends to defeat the very purpose of RTI Act 2005, besides being an affront to federalism enshrined as basic feature of Indian Constitution.
A call on Mr Acharyulu's demand is yet to be taken by the Commissioners, sources said.
In the letter marked to all his fellow commissioners, Mr Acharyulu has requested the CIC to send an official communication to the government asking for withdrawal of the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2018, the sources said
"The central government considered CIC as less in status than the CEC (Chief Election Commissioner). The RTI Act says it is 'constitutional right', while the Bill 2018 considers it is not. If CEC that enforces a right under Article 324 (1) is Constitutional institution, how CIC that enforces a fundamental right under Article 19(1)(a) becomes a non-constitutional body?," the letter asks.
Mr Acharyulu says it is not known how the government ignored the fact that Article 19(1)(a) includes in its rubric both the "right to express choice through voting and also right to information".
"The Supreme Court time and again said that the right to vote and RTI are fundamental rights. Hence the CIC and CEC stand on equal footing and rightly placed at par by RTI Act 2005 after thorough debate and consultations," he wrote.
The Commissioner wrote that Parliament ensured certainty and continuity of CIC as a norm through the RTI Act, 2005, which says that a Commissioner will hold office for five years or up to his age of 65 years (whichever is earlier) for sure.
Mr Acharyulu said that through the Bill, the executive attempts to usurp that power from the hands of the Parliament and state legislatures also.
Noting that though the provisions will not affect the service conditions of the sitting Commissioners, he said, "It is our responsibility to inform the government and the people of the possible consequences of these changes, and its effect on the working of the RTI Act, especially regarding the independence of the Central and State Information Commissions and Commissioners."
"As per the Constitutional scheme of distribution of powers between the Centre and States, the Centre cannot make law for states on subject of access to records under the control of States. But the Centre took shelter under the profound aim of effectuating fundamental right under Article 19(1)(a) saying the Right to Information is its intrinsic part," he said.
He said the RTI Act 2005 recognises sovereign authority of states to select their SICs, the Bill of 2018 strangely does not allow states to decide their term, status and salary as it proposes the Centre will prescribe it from time to time.
"The RTI is the only legislation after the Constitution of India, which had broad base of peoples' representation, consultation and discussion. It is a truly democratic piece of legislation that can empower people to challenge the misgovernance. While Centre intends to affect Central and State ICs, it did not consult them," he said.
The government had on July 18 said it was considering a proposal to amend the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005 to frame rules on salaries and services of Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) and Information Commissioners (ICs).
The proposed amendments, circulated among Members of Parliament, seek to do away with the parity given to information commissions with the Election Commission in terms of salary, allowances and conditions of service.
The proposal has been opposed by several opposition parties and leaders including Congress president Rahul Gandhi who has said these changes will render the law useless.