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Democracy And People’s Right To Information : Sneak Into RTI Amendment Act, 2019

According to Thomas Jefferson; Information is the currency of democracy.

In every political system accountability of the government is basic requirement of the individual.

For making a government accountable and answerable, the strongest weapon in the hand of people is right to information. So the Right to Information has emerged as an extremely powerful tool in the hand of most ordinary people to fight injustice and corruption. It has led to honest officers being protected and corrupt ones being prosecuted. But most important of all, it has led the people to feel empowered. Empowered to stand up and demand answers from government. Thus Right to Information has become voice of people on grass root level.

Right to Information is sine qua non in the modern society which is governed on the principle of Rule of Law and Natural Justice. It was dream of Mahatma Gandhi that the justice must be delivered to the person standing last in the row and in a strong way Right to Information act as a weapon in the hand of that last person to know, what government is doing for him? It empowers the weakest to ask question to the strongest. And this is the merit of Right to Information.

Importance Of Right To Information In Democracy

Information is the lifeblood of a democracy. Without adequate access to key information about government policies and programs, citizens and parliamentarians cannot make informed decisions and incompetent or corrupt governments can be hidden under a cloak of secrecy. Right to Information is usually used as a synonym for democracy. This is a tool to strengthen citizen's sovereignty.

The RTI is all about making citizens informed. Informed societies mean a lively and functioning democracy. The RTI empowers people to seek information from the government and public organizations and ask for government documents and their copies. RTI promotes transparency and accountability. Citizens feel honored when they get to exercise their right to have access to the source of information.

Right To Information Under Indian Constitution

Freedom of speech and expression is one of the six freedoms which the constitution of India guarantees under its Article 19(1). The main conception behind granting this freedom to the citizen of India was to allow them to freely develop their thoughts and ideas and share them without any unreasonable hurdle. In the scheme of Constitution of India this freedom is enshrined in the most important part relating to the 'Fundamental rights of the citizen'. And notably, the rights guaranteed under the Indian Constitution as fundamental rights. Similarly, the Right to Information is also having a close connection with the concept of the liberty of speech and expression.

A leading case on this issue was decided by the honorable Supreme Court of India in the year 1975 in the case of State of Uttar Pradesh Vs. Raj Narain where an Indian citizen had asked for the disclosure of the Government official's information kept as Blue book in respect to the rules and instructions of the protection of Prime Minister while travelling.

It was sought to be maintained by the petitioner that the said document would reveal the government's engagement in corrupt practices in connection with the Election campaign. In this case the Apex court of India has observed that the people cannot speak or express themselves unless they know, as such it is very much clear that the right to free speech and expression will not survive if its base i.e. Right to Information will not be allowed to the citizen and as a result the entire political structure and the role of media and ordinary common man will be collapsed from the society. Therefore, right to information is said to be embedded under Article 19 of the Constitution of India.

International Conventions Regarding Right To Information

Today nearly 100 countries have laws on the books granting individuals a general right to access information held by public bodies, and imposing an obligation on public bodies to proactively disclose key types of information. In 1990, only 13 countries had such laws. A number of international bodies have authoritatively recognized the fundamental and legal nature of the right to freedom of information, as well as the need for effective legislations to secure respect for that right in practice.

These include:

The United Nations

In 2004 Joint Declaration, the three special mandates on freedom of expression at UN, OSCE and OAS stated:
The right to access information held by public authorities is a fundamental human right which should be given effect at the national level through comprehensive legislations based on principle of maximum disclosure, establishing a presumption that all information is accessible subject only to a narrow system of exceptions.

Universal Declaration Of Human Rights, 1948(UDHR)

Article 19 of UDHR states that: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Council Of Europe

In 1981, the committee of ministers, the political decision making body of the council of Europe (composed of member state's ministers of Foreign Affairs) adopted Recommendation No. R (81)19 on access to Information Held by Public Authorities.

African Union

In 2002, the African Commission on Human and People's Right adopted a Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa. The Declaration clearly endorses the right to access information held by public bodies.

Right To Information Act, 2005

In order to ensure greater and more effective access to information, the Government resolved that the Freedom of Information Act,2002 enacted by the Parliament needs to be made more progressive, participatory and meaningful.

The National Advisory Council deliberated on the issue and suggest certain important changes to be incorporated in the existing Act to ensure smoother and greater access to information. The government examined the suggestions made by the National Advisory Council and others and decided to make number of changes in the law.

The Right to Bill have been passed by both the houses of Parliament received the assent of the President on 15th June, 2005.

Object Of The Act
Object of the Act is to harmonize the conflicting public interests, that is, ensuring transparency to bring in accountability and containing corruption on the one hand, and at the same ensure that the revelation of information, in actual practice, does not harm or adversely affect other public interests which include efficient functioning of the governments, optimum use of limited fiscal resources and preservation of confidentiality of sensitive information, on the other hand held in Institute of Chartered Accounts of India v. Shaunak H. Satya.

Salient Features Of Right To Information Act, 2005

The term Information includes any mode of information in any form of record, document, e-mail, circular, press release, contract sample or electronic data etc.
Any citizen may request information from a 'public authority' which is required to reply expeditiously or within thirty days.

The Act relaxes the Official Secrets Act of 1889 which was amended in 1923 and various other special laws that restricted information disclosures in India.

Applicant can obtain Information within 30 days from the date of request in normal case. In a matter of life and liberty of a person information can be obtained within 48 hours.
The exempted information would cease to be exempted if 20 years have lapsed after occurrence of the incident to which the information relates.

Penalty for refusal to receive an application for information or for not providing information is Rs. 250/- per day but the total amount of penalty should not exceed Rs. 25,000/-
If an applicant is not supplied information within the prescribed time of 30 days or 48 hours, as the case may be, or is not satisfied with the information furnished to him, he may prefer an appeal to the first appellate authority who is an officer senior in rank to PIO. If still not satisfied then applicant can go for second appeal with the Central Information commission (CIC)/ State information Commission (SIC) within 90 days from the date on which the decision should have been made by the first appellate authority or was actually received by the appellant.

Key Provisions:
  • Section 2(h): Public authorities means all authorities and bodies under the Constitution or any other law, and inter alia includes all authorities under the central, state governments and local bodies. The civil societies substantially funded, directly or indirectly, by the public funds also fall within the ambit.
  • Section 4(1) (b): Maintain and proactively disclose information.
  • Section 7: Prescribe simple procedure for securing information.
  • Section 7: Fixes time limit for providing information by PIOs.
  • Section 8: Only minimum information exempted from disclosure.
  • Section 19: Two tier mechanism for appeal.
  • Section 20: Provides penalties in case of failure to provide information on time, incorrect, incomplete or misleading or distorted information.
  • Section 23: Lower courts are barred from entertaining suits or applications. However, the writ jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and high courts under Articles 32 and 226 of the Constitution remains unaffected.

Right To Information (Amendment Act), 2019

Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely
The mentioned quote is appropriate for the recent amendment Act passed by both the house of the Parliament of India.

What Is In The Act?
Term

The bill aims to amend Section 13 and 16 of the RTI Act, 2005, in earlier Act the term for the Central Chief Information commissioner and State chief information Commissioner and Information Commissioners was fixed for 5 years. But the amendment specifies that the appointment will be for such term as prescribed by central government.

Salary
The amendment Act provides that “the salary and allowances payable to and other terms and conditions of service of the Chief Information Commissioner or Information Commissioners shall be such as may be prescribed by Central government”

Effect Of The Amendment Act
This Act grants greater power to central government and somehow hamper the autonomy of state government. And there is a greater chance that the Information Commissioners would become loyal to central government.

This amendment Act would affect the independence of CIC, SCIC and ICs.

CIC comes under the absolute control of central government.
As states are not in stronger position the central government will somehow hamper the transparency in matters relating to center.

Conclusion
The recent amendment Act proposed in parliament intends to make the RTI ACT a “Toothless Monster” as the autonomy of officers are hampered and there is a huge chances that central government may manipulate the functioning of the body. In Prakash Singh v. UOI the Supreme Court held that police, who is in charge of the law, must be free from the domination of executive.

The said principle is also applicable to the CIC and SIC, with much more force. As per many jurists and previous Chief information commissioners the RTI ACT of 2005 was the strongest right to information Acts in the world but the recent amendment makes it weaker and thus hamper free flow of information from public authority. So one can easily understand the reason why the government proposed this amendment Act.

Written By: Pratyay Amrit - Law college Dehradun, Uttaranchal University

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