The government’s recent move to amend the Right to Information Act is a retrograde, deeply anti-democratic, measure that will allow governments greater latitude to be opaque in relation to citizens. When this law was passed in 2005 by the Manmohan Singh government, it was greeted with jubilation. It was the result of years of struggle by activist groups. With this iconic legislation in place, ordinary individuals could file applications with virtually any department of the government — at the Centre and in states — to compulsorily disclose information. This had a salutary effect and provided a check on wrongdoing by vested interests.
Through the RTI method have been unearthed hidden unemployment data, dubious practices adopted in pursuing the Rafale deal, and footdragging by the RBI and the finance ministry in key matters, besides other crucial breakthroughs. Even at the village level, otherwise helpless citizens could hold to account the ration shop or the lower bureaucracy if they were in cahoots with contractors to deny payments to illiterate workers. The information law suddenly widened the scope for democracy and empowered citizens in relation to governments. Much was possible due to the high, semi-constitutional status conferred on information commissioners at the Centre and in the states. They were given a statutorily fixed term of five years so that they could pass strictures on foot-dragging by the government without fear. Central ICs had the status of election commissioners, and state ICs the status of chief secretary in salary and allowance matters. The proposed amendment takes away fixed tenures and salary status, practically making ICs government servants. This will strike at the impartiality of information commissioners.