Parliament on Thursday approved an amendment to the RTI Act that gave the government powers to decide salary and service terms of the statutory body head and its members, with Rajya Sabha passing it by a voice vote.
The Upper House witnessed high drama when it negated a motion for sending it to a house panel.
While the Lok Sabha had passed The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 on Monday, the Rajya Sabha gave its approval on Thursday after opposition walkout over what it said was "intimidation" tactics by treasury benches to influence voting on the motion to send the bill to a Select Committee for greater scrutiny.
While Personnel and Training Minister Jitendra Singh rejected opposition charge of the amendment diluting the RTI provision saying it will institutionalise chief information commission and strengthen the provision, all hell broke lose when voting took place on the opposition sponsored motion.
Ministers and members of treasury benches were seen instructing NDA and other like minded party members to tick 'Noes' on the voting slips.
But when C M Ramesh, who recently quit TDP to join the BJP, was seen getting vote slips signed by members, angry members of opposition parties led by Congress confronted him with some trying to snatch slips from his hand.
While Deputy Chairman Harivansh asked Ramesh to go back to his seat, the House plunged into a turmoil as Congress members Viplove Thakur and others tried to snatch the vote slips from hands of Ramesh and others opposition members rushed into the Well shouting slogans against such strong arm tactics.
Leader of the Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad said the House has witnessed a sample of how "303 seats are won", an apparent reference to BJP winning absolute majority in the recent Lok Sabha elections. This was strongly countered by treasury benches.
"In Parliament, ministers intimidate opposition leaders.
This is our charge. Ruling party members get signatures from members who do not understand the process. You want to convert Parliament into a government department," he said.
With treasury benches vociferously protesting, Azad said: "You are destroying democracy. We don't have any faith on you, so we walkout."
Almost the entire opposition walked out of the House, following which a count of the vote on the motion to send the bill to Select Committee was taken with 117 voting against and 75 in favour.
TRS, BJD and YSR-Congress members remained in the House and are said to have voted with the ruling NDA on the motion.
Before the vote, Railway Minister Piyush Goyal and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Patel were seen speaking to TRS and BJD members.
With empty opposition benches, the Bill was passed by a voice vote.
Opposition benches wanted the Select Committee motion to be voted first but Chair said it would be taken up only after the debate, forcing multiple adjournments earlier in the day.
When House finally got to discussing it, opposition parties including Congress, TMC, Left Front and SP opposed the amendment saying it was being done to undermine people's right to information and scuttle probing questions.
The Minister, replying to the debate, said the bill was brought with clean intention and the government is trying to live up its moto of minimum government, maximum governance.
"Please rest be assured that this legislation is without any motivation and in good faith. There are a number of other tribunals that have been harmonised over the last few months," he said justifying changing the salary and status of RTI body members from Supreme Court equivalent judges as the appeal against any CIC order lies with the High Court.
"There have also been occasions when the courts have directed to bring in uniformity, streamlining and institutionalising. At the end of the day it will lead to streamlining of the information commission and that in process will also strengthen the provision of the RTI Act," he said.
The RTI Act, which was passed by Parliament on June 15, 2005 and came into force on October 13, 2005, sets out a regime that allows citizens to secure access to information under the control of public authorities in order to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority.
This Act allowed a five year term or until the age of 65, whichever is earlier. The amendment proposes that the appointment will be "for such term as may be prescribed by the central government."
In the original Act, the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) was paid as much as the Chief Election Commissioner and the Information Commissioners were paid as much as Election Commissioners. The amendment provides for salaries to be prescribed by the Centre.These amendments, critics said, have wide ranging ramifications as instead of fixing salaries and tenure by law, "bureaucrats" will decide on a case-by-case basis. This dilutes job security and make information commissioners vulnerable to whims and fancies of the ruling establishment.