What are the differing views regarding the amendement to the RTI Act?
In Complaint Nos. CIC/MISC/2009/0001 & CIC/MISC/2009/2 dated 18-6-2009; Shri Balwant Singh Khera of Hoshiarpur & Dr. Kuldip Vats of Pataudi wherein 12 political parties were the opponents, Shri Wajahat Habibullah, the then Chief Information Commissioner had passed an order on 8-7-2009. The CIC ruled that “With regard to submissions of Dr. Kuldip Vats simply because a political party has the liberty to take recourse to the law, which liberty every private entity in a society governed by the rule of law enjoys, does not make it a public authority. We cannot, therefore, agree that political parties fall within the definition of public authority as defined in any of the clauses of Section 2 (h) of the RTI Act. Therefore, we hold that both these complaints e inadmissible under the RTI Act, 2005.”
The full bench of CIC has recently ruled that political parties are public authorities by virtue of being substantially funded by the government and performing public duties. The funding is in terms of getting land / bungalow at a nominal rate, getting income tax exemptions, free air time on All India Radio and Doordarshan etc.. There have been reports of plans of the central government to promulgate an ordinance to nullify the order of the Central Information Commission bringing political parties under the ambit of the Right to Information Act (RTI) Act.
Most political parties have argued that the financial support received from the govenrment does not make them a public authority. It has also been argued that the election commission already exercises control over the political parties. It has been further argued that bringing them under the RTI Act would lead to undue interference in the party affairs. Moreover, practical difficulty in the appointment of a PIO and enforcing penalty has been cited. There have been calls to call an all-party meeting to discuss the issue in detail.
Some legal experts have held that the order of the Central Information Commission is on a strong legal footing and have given an opinion that an appeal would not withstand judicial scrutiny. If this amendment passes through, it would be the first amendment in the RTI Act, 2005 which has braved many previous efforts for a modification largely due to the opposition from the RTI activists’ coupled with the support from the National Advisory Council. The definition of the public authority under the RTI Act does not make any ditinction between a political party and a private organisation.
We have tried to summarise the view of the proponents and antagonists reported in the media.
- PCC spokesman N Tulsi Reddy said “We are for transparency and we have been maintaining our records. Moreover, the party has been giving details of their activities to the people. So, again bringing it under RTI will serve no purpose”.
- TDP MP Nama Nageswara Rao said “We don’t mind political parties being brought under RTI Act but before that a consensus has to be brought among the parties on the issue. There is a need for wide-ranging discussion among the parties on the issue”.
- BJP vice-president Bandaru Dattatreya said “Let there be a thorough discussion on the issue and only after considering all aspects of the Act should a decision be taken”. He reportedly said that the party was for transparency but the party wanted certain steps to be taken before taking the final call on the issue.
- BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad said "On ordinance for political parties out of RTI - in the wake of information commission's judgment as well we had said this issue requires a debate. Political parties need to be open."
- CPI state secretary K Narayana said “The CPI has been maintaining transparency as far as financial matters are concerned and has been submitting its financial details to EC and IT departments so there is no need for the party to disclose the same before a third party”.
- CPM secretariat member YV Rao said “The CPM does not collect funds from the public and it is run by its members. Moreover, the entire financial details are being made available on the party’s website. So where is the need for the party to disclose its financial details?”
- Former information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi said “What is the emergency (to bring an amendment)?” He wondered why the political parties weren’t challenging the CIC decision if it was so wrong. He called it a retrograde step
- Information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari said “the intent of RTI Act was not to cover political parties. Else, it should have been explicitly stated”.
- Congress spokesperson Bhakta Charan Das said the government was not diluting the transparency law but certain aspects were under discussion.
- Lok Satta Party national president N Jayaprakash Narayan said "The attempt of political parties to deny people knowledge about their working is nothing but a conspiracy against democracy and voters. It will be the height of absurdity if political parties claim immunity from public scrutiny under the RTI Act." The party said that it would legally challenge the Union Government's bid to exempt political parties from the ambit of the RTI.
- Narayan, a former member of the Administrative Reforms Commission pointed out that "The Administrative Reforms Commission stipulated that any financial assistance of Rs 1 crore or more or constitutes 50 per cent of the operational budget of the organisation is substantial."
- Friends turned foe Aruna Roy and Arvind Kejriwal have come together and issued a joint statement along with 11 other eminent activists. The statement says “There are reports that the government is thinking of promulgating an Ordinance to amend the Right to Information Act. This Act was passed by our Parliament and has now become part of the extremely valuable citizen empowerment for our democracy.”
- Aruna Roy’s National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) in a separate statement said “We believe that the CIC order will go a long way in ensuring transparency and accountability in the functioning of political parties. Inclusion of political parties under the RTI Act will ensure that parties are accountable to the people of the country ….. This only goes to show that when political parties themselves are subject to the transparency law, they are willing to go to the extent of amending this landmark legislation to ensure that they are not open to public scrutiny under the Act”.
- Congress leader V Narayanasamy said “As far as the decision taken by the central commission, of bringing the political parties under the ambit of RTI Act, as a political person, I have my reservations on that. But as a government, it has to take a decision on that and still no decision has been taken.”