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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 32 New Delhi July 27, 2019

Now the RTI Act

Sunday 28 July 2019, by Barun Das Gupta

The RTC (Amendment) Bill which the ruling party got passed in the Lok Sabha by its sheer brute majority is of a piece with the Modi Government’s systematic and sustained efforts at subverting the autonomy of every constitutional and statutory body and making it subservient to the Union Government. The statement of objectives of the Bill clearly states that the government wants to reduce the stature of the Central Information Commissioner.

At present the CIC’s status is equivalent to the Election Commissioners and judges of the Supreme Court. Under the 2005 Act, which was passed by the Congress Government (and which is still in force because the amending Bill is yet to be passed in the Rajya Sabha), the Information Commissioner has the authority to issue directives to the Cabinet Secretary, Principal Secretary and other senior officials to disclose information under the RTI Act. Under the present Act, the Chief Information Commissioner, the Information Comssioners and even State Information Commissioners have a fixed tenure of five years or up to the attainment of the superannuation age. They cannot be removed from their office before the expiry of their term. This safeguard is going to be removed.

Not only that. The proposed amendment enables the government to usurp the power to fix the tenure, term, status and salary. The Act of 2005 does not give this power to the Union Government. The Bill seeks to give to the Centre the power to “prescribe by rules the terms of the offices of and salaries and allowances and terms and conditions of service of” the Chief Election Commissioner, the Information Commissioners and even the State Information Commissioners and other Commissioners.

Once the Bill becomes the law, the Union and State Information Commissions will become appendages of the government, like any other government department. The downgrading of the status of the CIC has been done deliberately so that the CIC and SICs cannot ask for information from officers senior to them in rank like the Cabinet Secretary. As Congress MP Shashi Tharoor aptly said, it is not an RTI “amendment” Bill, it is an RTI “elimination” Bill. Once the new law comes into force, the government will effectively plug any leakage of information embarrassing to the Centre and State governments.

Denial of information is tantamount to suppression of the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution. All freedoms and democratic rights given by the Constitution are sought to be taken away from the very people who have voted this government to power. The Minister of State for the PMO, Jitendra Singh, ominously said that the Bill is an “enabling legislation”. How he was repeating Hitler’s language!

One of the first things that Hitler did on coming to power in 1933 was to pass an “Enabling Act” which disabled the very Weimar Constitution under which it was passed. The avowed purpose of the law was to “remedy the distress of the people and the nation”. Article 2 of the law said: “Laws enacted by the Government of the Reich may deviate from the Constitution as long as they do not affect the institutions of the Reichstag and the Reichsrat.” Thus Hitler usurped the power to make laws that were violative of the Weimar Constitution (“may deviate from the Constitution”) to become the greatest and most ruthless dictator of the 20th century. The disturbing question that arises in the mind is: Is the Indian Constitution also heading for the same fate? Will one person’s autocracy be sanctified by an “enabling” legislation that will put an end to democracy and all the democratic institutions of India?

The author was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Das Gupta.

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