India parliament amends right to information law, strengthens government control over statutory bodies
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India parliament amends right to information law, strengthens government control over statutory bodies

The upper house of India’s parliament approved a bill on Thursday to amend the Right to Information Act of 2005. The bill has already been passed by the lower house of parliament and will become law once it receives presidential assent.

Amendments to the law proposed in the bill include changes to the fixed term of information commissioners, who are officials appointed under the statute. It renders their pay and service conditions subject to executive rules made by the federal government. Clause 2(a) of the bill proposes to amend section 13(1) of the statute and replace the fixed five-year term of office for the Chief Information Commissioner with “such term as may be prescribed” by the federal government. Information commissioners at the state-level will also be subject to term, pay and service conditions made by the federal government per the amendments proposed by clause 3 of the bill to section 16 of the Right to Information Act (RTI).

Following protests during the voting, the opposition Indian National Congress staged a walkout, saying the government was “undermining democracy.” P Chidambaram, an opposition member of parliament, questioned the bill’s incorporation of provisions that allegedly undermine the powers of state governments. “The state government constitutes Information Commissioners. So, why are you taking the power to prescribe the tenure and terms and conditions of that appointment? Why can’t the state government do that? Can’t you trust the states to prescribe the tenure and terms and conditions of the appointment?” he asked.

Former information commissioner Sridhar Acharyulu has written an open letter to the chief ministers of three states, seeking an explanation for their support to the bill. “Do you know that this kind of the most unjustified and unconstitutional surrender of your sovereignty to powers of Delhi, with specific reference to your powers of appointing an information commissioner will disable you from determining the term and status of your own commissioners?” reads Acharyulu’s letter.

“If they (information commissioners) are beholden to the government for their salary, tenure, and terms of service, they will be under an obligation,” said Wajahat Habibullah, a former information commissioner. “This goes even for those with the most undoubted integrity. … You don’t really have to be corrupt to toe the government line then,” he told reporters, alongside other former colleagues.

Jitendra Singh, the federal minister for personnel, public grievances, and pension, said: “the Information Commission is a statutory body, and it is an anomaly to equate it to a constitutional body like the Election Commission.” The government says the bill was introduced to correct an anomaly that puts the Information Commission at par with the Election Commission. Minister Singh assured parliament that the amendment is an enabling legislation, adding that the government has no ulterior motives. “There is no attempt, motivation or design to curtail the autonomy of RTI,” he said.