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While the government terms the changes to the RTI Act as “routine streamlining” and rationalisation of procedures, the unseemly haste and secrecy should not undermine citizens’ right to information and thwart uncomfortable questions

By MG Devasahayam

The Right to Information (RTI) Act, as its charter says, mandates timely response to citizens’ requests for information on what’s going on in the government. Its basic objective is to empower ordinary citizens, promote transparency, seek accountability from the government and make it work for the people. Since it came into effect 14 years ago, it has helped expose some of the biggest scams the country has seen.

Mystery thus surrounds the mad rushing of the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019, through the Lok Sabha and its passage within three days of its introduction. Surprisingly, it has now also been ratified by the Rajya Sabha after Opposition parties failed to put up a united front. The Congress Parliamentary Party chairperson, Sonia Gandhi, rightly termed it as “disempowering every Indian citizen” and went on to say that RTI now stands on the brink of extinction.

The amendment brings in changes involving the salaries and tenures of information commissioners in the states and at the centre. As per the amendment, information commissioners—who currently have five-year tenures (up to age limit of 65)—will have “terms as may be prescribed by the central government”, and their salaries, instead of being on a par with those of election commissioners, will be decided by the central government.

Arguing that the amendment was done to “remove some anomalies in the Act”, the government points out that the functions being carried out by the Election Commission (EC) and the information commissions (ICs) are totally different. The EC is a constitutional body while ICs are statutory bodies established under the RTI Act. “We are not interfering and will not do anything to affect the autonomy of the institution,” said Jitendra Singh, Union minister of state for personnel & training. This sounds hollow and specious. What sort of autonomy will the ICs have once the tenure and salary of their commissioners comes under the whimsical control of the government in power?

While inaugurating the national convention on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the RTI Act in October 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had proclaimed that the Act, by empowering an ordinary citizen to question the administration and seek information about its actions, forms the foundation of a vibrant democracy. He had also eloquently stated that this enabled the government to monitor its own functioning, bringing transparency and accountability. He then said that questioning the government was a citizen’s right and vital for democracy. “People should have a right to question the government. This will increase their faith in democracy. We need to become proactively transparent. People should not have to make effort to get information. More openness in government will help citizens. In this day and age, there is no need for secrecy,” Modi said.

How ironic that Wajahat Habibullah, India’s first chief information commissioner (CIC), has this to say now: “It is in recognising the critical role of the ICs that Parliament thought fit to stipulate their salaries and allowances and specify their tenure in the RTI Act itself. Parliament framed this scheme to ensure that the ICs would work without fear or favour in an autonomous manner, particularly because in nine out of 10 appeal cases, the government or a public sector undertaking is a party. The present amendment demolishes it all.”

Strangely enough, the government introduced the amendment in complete secrecy and in flagrant violation of the Pre-legislative Consultation Policy which mandates public disclosure and consultation on draft legislation. Owing to the undemocratic method of its introduction, the contents of the draft amendments were not known to MPs, citizens and the media till the Bill was circulated to Lok Sabha members on the eve of its introduction.

Eminent social activist Aruna Roy, the force behind the RTI Act, has this to say: “The status of information commissioners was extensively discussed during the formulation of the law, including in the Standing Committee. In fact, the Committee opined, ‘IC is an important creation under the Act which will execute the laudable scheme of the legislation…It should, thus, be ensured that it functions with utmost independence and autonomy.’ It recommended that to achieve this objective, it would be desirable to confer on the central chief information commissioner and information commissioners, status of the chief election commissioner and election commissioners, respectively. The committee’s recommendation was accepted and passed by Parliament unanimously through an extensive process of public and Parliamentary consultation.”

The present government, within weeks of assuming power, calls this an “anomaly” and seeks to remove it overnight in a stealthy manner. Why this supersonic speed, unseemly haste and determination to amend the law? Obviously, someone is afraid of the RTI Act!

In the mid-1960s, there was a popular play titled Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a parody of the song from Walt Disney’s The Three Little Pigs. The story revolves around two couples trying desperately to suppress a certain truth, which to their consternation manages to come out, leading to thunder and fury. In her writing, Woolf attempts to expose the truth: all of the things that the couples try to cover up. When the couples sing the song together, they make mockery of their own fear of the truth and are attempting to project a false image.

Do we see a parallel with the present government and the EC? Indeed, we should. Particularly in the context of speculation that it is due to differences between the EC and the ICs that the government thought it fit to bring about this amendment. If the objective is just to remove any “anomaly”, it could have been done in a routine manner in full public view. Why this guilt, tearing hurry and secrecy?

Therein lies the tale of the recent Lok Sabha polls which were devoid of basic elements of integrity. There is deep suspicion about extensive manipulation of electronic voting machines (EVMs) aided and abetted by the EC itself. The issue was serious enough to prompt 64 former civil servants (many of whom have conducted and supervised elections) belonging to the Constitutional Conduct Group to write to the EC, inter alia, stating that: “The 2019 general election appears to have been one of the least free and fair elections that the country has had in the past decades…In the past, despite the efforts of criminal elements, musclemen, and unscrupulous politicians, the persons who graced the EC did their best to ensure that elections were conducted as freely and fairly as possible. In this general election, however, an impression has gathered ground that our democratic process is being subverted and undermined by the very constitutional authority empowered to safeguard its sanctity. It was rare in the past for any serious doubts to be raised about the impartiality, integrity and competence of the EC. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the present EC and the way it has conducted the 2019 general election.”

And though suppressed in mainstream media, there has been an avalanche of allegations and charges against the EC and several public campaigns have been launched to take the Commission to task in order to save democracy. In the process, there will be a spate of RTI applications to the EC and appeals before the ICs to ascertain facts and information in order to activate these campaigns as well as to seek remedies through courts of law. The EC has already started to feel the heat and has resorted to bluff and filibuster.

A typical case is the reply received by The Quint for their RTI query to the EC, seeking information and documents on the VVPAT count data during the Lok Sabha election: “Polling station-wise data of Lok Sabha Election-2019 is not available with the Commission. It may be available with the CEOs of all states/UTs. You may obtain information from the office of CEOs of the states/ UTs by submitting an application under the RTI Act, 2005, separately. Your application cannot be transferred to them as more than one PIOs are involved u/s 6 (3) of the RTI Act, 2005.”

This absurd reply came even as the circulars issued by the EC itself say that all chief election officers (CEOs) are to submit their VVPAT data to it within seven days from counting day. So why is the data “not available” with it?

The central information commission order says that even if multiple PIOs are needed to share the information, it is the responsibility of the PIO in possession of the RTI query to transfer it to the rest of the PIOs. So why did they claim they cannot transfer the request to more than one PIO? Why is the EC attempting to hide the massive mismatch between the EVM count and VVPAT slips by refusing to share this crucial data?

The EC also seems to be in some sort of panic. How else can one explain the conflicting statements issued by it regarding the mismatch between the EVM vote count and VVPAT slips? On May 26, 2019, the EC said that there was no mismatch but on July 22, it admitted there were eight mismatches. To boot, the EC has commenced a Goebbelsian mode of publicity blitzkrieg extolling the virtues of EVMs through paid advertisements! All these indicate that there must be something very rotten and there are many skeletons in its closet.

It looks as if after having committed a grievous assault on democracy, the EC is now caught between a rock and a hard place. And the political bosses and beneficiaries of this election have come to its rescue to wipe out the autonomy of ICs, only to conceal the misdeeds of the EC. Clearly, the first is being sacrificed at the altar of the latter!

The issue basically is: Should the truth about the arbitrary, autocratic and partisan functioning of the EC be brought out in the open and made public? A la Virginia Woolf, the ICs would be for revealing the truth which the EC is desperately trying to suppress and cover up. When the EC mocks the ICs, it is expressing its own fear of the truth and is projecting a false image before the people. So, who is afraid of the RTI Act? Do we need a jury?

—The writer is a former Army and IAS officer

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