At first sight what the government has done seems innocuous but that’s misleading. It has amended Sections 13 and 16 of the Act which determine the tenure and salaries of Chief Information Commissioners and Information Commissioners at both the central and state levels. They will no longer have fixed five-year terms nor will their salaries be linked to those of the Election Commissioners at the central level and the Chief Secretaries at the state level. Hereafter, both salaries and tenures will be “for such term as may be prescribed by the central government”. In other words, they’re left to the arbitrary choice of the executive.
This could lead to several undesirable outcomes. Different people could be given different lengths of service and salary whilst those the government considers “loyalists” granted lengthier tenures and heftier salaries. In fact, an amendment to the rules could arguably permit the government to alter tenures and salaries after appointment. Collectively, this will ensure the RTI system does not stand up to the executive but buckles under pressure. If that happens, the Commission’s independence will suffer.
Two other consequences might further undermine the Commission. First, these amendments amount to a serious downgrading of RTI Commissioners and in a hierarchical country, where emoluments and position determine influence and effectiveness, they will demote Information Commissioners and diminish their power. The other impact will be on the sort of people who seek to become Information Commissioners. Anyone with a higher income and status will be uninterested. Once again, the quality of the Commission could suffer.
So when the government claims it’s only acted to strengthen the Commission that’s baloney. Not a single Information Commissioner I’ve met, past or present, accepts this. The present ones may not be affected but they know their successors will be badly hit.
The government also has a technical explanation. It says the Information Commission is a statutory body and cannot be treated on par with the Election Commission, a constitutional body. After all, it argues, Information Commission judgments can be appealed in a High Court so how can Commissioners have the status of Supreme Court judges?
These are poor excuses and not good reasons. More importantly, they overlook the fact that the Election Commission judgments are often appealed at the High Court level, yet that doesn’t constitute grounds for rethinking its status.
So why has the government done this? Why has it emasculated the Commission in complete disregard of the fact the RTI system has added enormous weight to India’s democracy? One can only guess but perhaps the best informed has come from Congress Rajya Sabha MP Jairam Ramesh. He believes the government’s decision to shrink the Commission is revenge for five decisions which have embarrassed Narendra Modi.
That could be true in two cases. First is the RTI revelation that Mr. Modi’s claim that 40 million bogus ration cards have been eliminated by his government is untrue. The actual number is 23 million. More embarrassing is the Commission’s decision to disclose the Prime Minister’s educational qualifications against which he has appealed to the Delhi High Court. It seems Mr Modi has something to hide but the Commission won’t let him.
Ramesh says the RTI amendments are “to make sure that these types of embarrassments don’t repeat themselves”. Is he right? I can’t say for sure but it seems to add up. In fact, I’m not unwilling to accept this is why the government has amended an institution that wasn’t broke. Now, of course, it is!