Is there any substance in the political parties’ claim that they’re not public entities and therefore not subject to RTI?
Political parties are certainly ‘public entities’ or ‘public bodies’ even though there might be some legitimate issues which arise out of being defined as a ‘public authority’.
There is substance in some of the concerns being voiced by political party members, but none that justify being excluded from the Right to Information Act altogether. We believe that a lot of these concerns could have been addressed within the exemptions provided under section 8 of the RTI Act. If there is a need, rules can clarify that matters such as internal decision-making and protection of competitive interests fall within the scope of these exemptions. The content of the RTI Amendment Bill, 2013, however, excludes parties completely and shields them from any questioning on any matter.
Is there any aspect of RTI applying to them or to the CIC’s 3 June order itself which is bad in law as stated by political parties?
The CIC (Central Information Commission) order is technically justified as per the RTI Act. However, as even the Chief Information Commissioner has said, there is a need to have different levels of transparency for private bodies that perform a private function or which are not strictly government agencies. Therefore, while the order can be legally justified, there is a need and scope for it to be understood and implemented in a more nuanced manner.
There is nevertheless little doubt that the amendment will run foul of the people’s constitutional right to know. There is every likelihood that if this amendment were passed, it will be struck down by a court.
Why is it necessary to ensure that political parties come under RTI? What long term impact would it have on governance?
The credibility of political parties is at an all-time low today. In public perception, our ‘representatives’ are corrupt, their decisions determined by vested interests , their manifestos filled with rhetoric. The move of political parties to exclude themselves from the purview of the RTI Act strengthens this image: of a people acting in their self interest, fearful of being accountable to the very same people they claim to represent.
In any case, there is broad consensus that the political system is plagued by the power of money and its manipulations – much of it from unaccounted sources. Honest politicians have repeatedly expressed their distress with the way elections are being fought and the inability of anyone without access to money to contest an election. The political parties’ claim that the Election Commission and Income Tax Department are equipped enough to ensure transparency is wrong. It is clear that without the help of ordinary citizens it will be impossible to monitor the role of money in the political system. That is why political parties need to be included under the purview of the RTI Act.
The RTI has grown to be one of the strongest tools in the hands of common citizens struggling to fight corruption and bring about greater transparency and accountability at every stage of governance. Had members of political parties, in their role as parliamentarians and legislators, crafted an appropriate space for political parties within the RTI Act, this would have broadened the scope of the act to apply to all public bodies and strengthened it as a democratic tool. It would have also made people confident that their representatives are truly committed towards the same goals of fighting corruption and bringing about greater transparency and accountability in governance.
What is the most distressing aspect of the erosion of the RTI in this manner (by amendment)?
Removing any agency through a blanket exemption runs contrary to the logic of an act that has made adequate exclusions for certain categories of sensitive information. The way in which political parties have united in moving forward with an amendment without any public consultation and have excluded themselves completely makes it that much more unacceptable.
India has one of the strongest ‘Right to Information’ acts in the world. Despite several attempts to weaken the act and the non-implementation of many of its key tenets, the act has grown in strength because of the way in which it has been used by people, many of whom have risked their livelihoods and even their lives. The RTI Amendment Bill, 2013, if it gets passed, will be the first amendment to the RTI since the act was passed in 2005. It will weaken the act through exclusion of an entire category of public functionaries (political parties) and all information pertaining to political parties, including financial dealings. This would be a huge loss to the RTI Act, which goes far beyond the accountability of strictly government agencies to include non-governmental bodies which use public money and serve a public purpose. The exclusion of political parties from the RTI will act as a negative precedent for all other such bodies.
What did the PM say during your visit last evening? Is he inclined to delay the amendment process and consider wider public consultation?
The PM said that amendments are being proposed as there is unanimity across all political parties on amending the RTI law to remove political parties from its purview.
However, at the meeting with the PM, the NCPRI (National Campaign for People’s Right to Information) demanded the the RTI not be amended without public consultation and that the bill be sent to a Standing Committee of the Parliament before passage. The PM responded to say that although the Amendment bill is a property of the Parliament and the decision lies with the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha, he will convey this demand to his party.