New Delhi: The Centre introduced a bill in Lok Sabha on Friday to amend the RTI Act, seeking to give the government powers to fix salaries, tenures and other terms and conditions of employment of information commissioners amid vehement protests by opposition members.
Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office Jitendra Singh tabled the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019, asserting it will lead to ease of delivery of RTI Act and described it as an enabling legislation for administration purposes.
Singh described the current law "clumsy" which, he said, was brought in by the Congress-led government "in haste".
Slamming the government, Leader of Congress in Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said the bill is a "threat to independence" of Central Information Commissioner. His colleague Shashi Tharoor called it "RTI elimination bill" as it "removes" the organisations institutional independence.
"It is not an RTI (Amendment) Bill. It is an RTI Elimination Bill. This Bill is removing the two greatest armours of institutional independence and on top of that, by controlling the State Information Commissioners, by taking over the power to determine their salaries, the Central government is destroying it," Tharoor said.
The current RTI Act says that the salaries, allowances and other terms and conditions of the service of the Chief Information Commissioner will be the same as that of the Chief Election Commissioner while that of an Information Commissioner shall be same as that of an Election Commissioner.
The amendment, tabled on Friday, states that Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioners have salaries of a Supreme Court Judge which brings Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners at par with the apex court judges.
"The functions being carried out by the Election Commission of India and the Central and State Information Commissions are totally different. The Election Commission of India is a Constitutional body...On the other hand Central Information Commission and State Information Commission are statutory bodies established under the Right to Information Act, 2005," it said.
The change in the law will "enable the central government to prescribe by rules the term of office of, and the salaries and allowances and other terms and conditions of service of the Chief Information Commissioner, Information Commissioners, state information commissioner and state information commissioners."
Opposition parties demanded that the bill be sent to a standing committee for scrutiny.
AIMIM member Asaduddin Owaisi sought a division of votes on the bill's introduction. With the BJP-led NDA alliance having a strong majority in the House, 224 members ended up supporting it and only nine opposed it.
Members of the Congress and Trinamool Congress walked out during the voting.
Jitendra Singh said no one can question the Modi government on its commitment to transparency, asserting it works on the principle of maximum governance, minimum government.
The bill strengthens the overall RTI structure and institutionalise it, he said, describing it as an enabling legislation for administration purposes.
Activists have criticised the amendments, saying it will weaken transparency panels in the country.
Owaisi said the bill is a threat to the Constitution and Parliament.
As the exchange of words between the treasury and opposition benches continued, Singh took a dig at the Congress, saying during its government RTI was a "10 am to 5 pm" work but now an RTI application can be filed anytime from anywhere online.
He said the Modi government moved an extra mile for selection of CIC. Since there was no leader of opposition in the 16th Lok Sabha, the government amended rules so that leader of largest opposition party can be included in the selection panel.