Right to Information (amendment) Bill 2019 passed by the Parliament was a step in the right direction, says State Information Commissioner Juino de Souza in an interview with ‘The Navhind Times’ reporter Shaikh Jamaluddin. Following are the excerpts:
Q: The recent RTI (amendment) bill, 2019 passed by Parliament had caused wide-spread criticism among stakeholders and RTI activists. What is your take?
I will firmly say that the amendment is a step in the right direction. I don’t understand why there is a hue and cry. What has been amended are merely Sections 13, 16 and 27 which now specify that the terms of office, salaries, allowances and other terms and conditions of Chief Information Commissioner (CIC), Information Commissioners (IC), State Information Commissioner (SCIC) and the State Information Commissioners (SIC) shall be prescribed by the central government. Nothing else has changed.
Q: But what was the need for amending these sections?
The salaries, allowances and other terms and conditions of service of a CIC/IC/SCIC were equivalent to that of Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), Election Commissioner (EC) which in turn is equivalent to a Supreme Court judge and this has been changed. The journey of a judge from the bar to the bench calls for sheer hard work and is indeed a long struggle which takes years before one can be elevated as judge of the Supreme Court. It is therefore not proper to compare the selection and appointment of a judge of the Supreme Court with the selection and appointment of a CIC/IC/ SCIC which is purely at the behest of the government of the day.
Q: What about amendment of the State Information Commissioner (SIC)?
The same logic is applicable here also. A SIC is equivalent to the rank of a chief secretary of a state. Can you imagine how many years it takes for a newly appointed IAS officer to reach the level of chief secretary? Ask any officer and he/she will say a minimum of 30 years is required. Is this not a long struggle?
Q: RTI activists are saying that the government has usurped Parliament’s power as previously the tenure, salaries, terms and conditions of service were specified in the RTI act itself. Now it is left for the central government to decide?
Nothing has been ‘usurped’. If Parliament through Section 12(3) of RTI in 2005 has given power to the ‘government’ to decide who and which CIC/IC/SCIC/SIC should be selected, what is wrong if Parliament gives the same power to the ‘government’ of the day to decide the tenure, salary, allowances and terms and conditions of service for information commissioners?
Q: But the RTI activists are arguing that the amendment is aimed at lowering of the status of Information Commissioners which will weaken the RTI Act and dilute the autonomy and independence of the Information Commission?
I am rather intrigued by such statements. How can downgrading the stature of the information commissioners have a bearing on the autonomy and independence of the commission when Section 12(4) of the RTI act 2005 which deals with autonomy has not been touched and Section 14 regarding the removal also remains unchanged.
Q: Do you feel that the government by the amendment is trying to have a control over information commissioners?
I don’t think so. It is only the Person of Indian Origin (PIO) who is responsible for furnishing information and penal action as per section 20(1) can be taken only against the PIO and he is usually a low rank officer in the government hierarchy. Those in the higher echelons of government escape punishment and cannot be pulled up by the commission.
Q: While introducing the amendments, the government argued that the information commission is a statutory body whereas the Election Commission is a constitutional body and thus both cannot be at par and therefore the status cannot be same?
Irrespective of the term ‘Statutory of Constitutional’, each institute/body is unique and different in its identity and functioning. Whether it is the Supreme Court/High Court, Election Commission, Human Rights Commission of Information Commission or any other body, each performs separate roles and discharges different functions. Let us therefore not make comparisons. I feel it is improper to apply the tenure, salary, allowances and perks given to members of one institution/body to that of another. Let the term of office, salary allowances and service conditions for each body be framed and notified separately.
Q: Do you feel there should be any further amendments to the RTI act?
Society is never static and laws need to be amended as society evolves. I have disposed off hundreds of cases and in my opinion the entire RTI act needs to be overhauled. The RTI act was enacted in 2005 and between then and now, we have witnessed a huge change in governance and administration and there is a dire need to take a relook at some other sections of the RTI act which also needs to be amended in tune with the changing times so as to make the implementation of the act more effective.