Though the criticism of the changes to the RTI Act that the Centre wants to bring need nuance, the underlying concern of those protesting the changes is merited. The amendments, if enacted, will indeed weaken the transparency law, and, indeed, RTI as a lever to ensure government accountability. The changes relate to fixing the tenure of information commissioners (including the chief information commissioner) at both the central and the state level, and the rationalisation of their salaries and service conditions. While the Centre may be well within its rights to tweak the salaries for the commissioners of the Central Information Commission, all other interventions it has in mind make the commissions vulnerable to political pressure and erode the commission(s) authority, and will also be a violation of the federal spirit. The existing law states that the tenure of the information commissioners will be of five years, with an age cap of 65—the Centre now proposes that the term “may be prescribed by the central government”. If the tenure is subject to the Centre’s whim, chances are information commissions will be sacked for passing inconvenient orders. While three of the 10 positions at the Central Information Commission are lying vacant, the Centre is intent upon vesting itself with more termination powers.
What’s worse is the manner in which the amendments have been presented. The Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy of 2014 makes it mandatory for the government to seek public feedback on draft legislations, but the Centre has zealously guarded the changes, as per many activists involved in shaping the original Act. The present government, as well as its predecessor, have moved in the past to weaken the Act—while the UPA took the RTI yoke off political parties, the present government wanted to introduce changes that would have jeopardised the safety of RTI applicants and made using RTI forbidding, before public outcry forced it to withdraw the proposals. This would make the opaqueness with which the amendments have been presented seem deliberate—the painful irony is that it is the transparency law that the government will end up weakening.