By: Neeta Lal

A furor has broken out over proposed amendments made by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government to India’s landmark Right to Information law with critics charging the changes dilute the transparency of the landmark law.

The opposition has accused the government of “undermining democracy” by rushing the amendments through both houses of parliament without public or parliamentary consultation. The measure now awaits President Ram Nath Kovind’s signature.

The biggest criticism against the new changes is that they will result in a complete dilution of the structural mechanism around the statute. They are also designed to grant greater powers to the Centre in fixing the salaries and tenures of the chief information commissioners and information commissioners – instrumental players in implementing the act — at both the central and state levels.

However, the government, led by Narendra Modi, has claimed these are routine amendments aimed at streamlining the functioning of information commissions and that the opposition is “misleading” the people. “There is no attempt, motivation or design to curtail the autonomy of RTI,” said Jitendra Singh, minister of state for personnel, public grievances and pensions.

Touted as India’s most progressive piece of legislation, the RTI came into effect in 2005. It was globally hailed as a monumental law burnishing India’s democratic credentials. It was also seen as a great tool for ordinary citizens to hold accountable the powers that be by questioning governmental policies and decision-making while challenging the vested interests of the government.

The success of the transparency law has allowed an estimated five to six million information requests to be filed every year for greater transparency on issues of national importance ranging from defense purchases to civil rights to black money.

Legal scholars say that by granting themselves the authority to fix the tenure and salaries of information commissioners—currently ranked at par with election commissioners, with a fixed tenure of five years – the government is effectively killing the act. “Without a fixed tenure and salary, which will now be decided by the government, information commissioners will lack the teeth to force public bodies to part with information,” said one activist.

Congress legislator Jairam Ramesh called the RTI amendments “profoundly dangerous.” The timing of the amendments is also suspect, he added, coming as it does in the wake of uncomfortable queries and bold directions by information commissioners that relate to the prime minister’s educational qualifications, his claim on number of bogus ration cards weeded out through the use of Aadhaar biometric identity cards, disclosures related to the botched banknote demonetization of 2016 and bank defaulters. Other queries relate to the total of black money brought back from abroad. The RTI Act was instrumental in unearthing a slew of scams under the previous Congress regime.

The government’s move, say activists, also flies in the face Modi’s mantra of “maximum governance, minimum government” which seeks to reduce bureaucracy and red tape in government functioning while ushering in transparency .

“More openness in government will help citizens. In this day and age, there is no need for secrecy,” Modi stated at an Information Commissioners’ event in 2015.

Some activists also see the move as flouting fundamental rights guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. “It is the right of every citizen to question their government, said a civil rights activist. “Since no reasonable explanation is being offered by the government in hurriedly passing the bill through both houses of Parliament, the message is that government can and will change whatever they wish.”

Leading figures have also expressed their disenchantment openly. “Citizens must write to the president asking him not to sign the bill. In case we cannot stop this, we need to continue trying to persuade our government not to pursue this path. It is the duty and the right of citizens if we wish to safeguard our constitution,” wrote Shailesh Gandhi, a former central information commissioner, in the national financial daily Mint.

Seven former information commissioners also condemned the BJP’s move. Sridhar Acharyulu has said that the RTI Amendment Bill was not just an attack on the RTI Act but also on the constitutional right to freedom of speech as the RTI emanates from there. The Supreme Court, he said, has repeatedly asserted that the right to information is a fundamental right and that is what empowered the central government to even legislate the RTI Act which was even applicable to states.

Populist impulses in democracies, said Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, can often trigger actions that compromise democratic processes. This rings true in the case of the dismantling of the RTI infrastructure while also smacking of governmental overreach.

However, as a senior politician put it, the Centre may bulldoze its way through to eliminate structural checks and balances around the RTI. But it will be a Pyrrhic victory. In the end, it will lose people’s faith which is the bedrock of the world’s largest democracy.

Neeta Lal (neetalal@hotmail.com) is a Delhi-based journalist and editor and a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel.