The Right to Indifference

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Illustration: Sudeep Chaudhuri
Illustration: Sudeep Chaudhuri

On 3 June, the Central Information Commission (CIC) ruled that the six national political parties should come under the ambit of the landmark RTI Act. The CIC also set a six-week deadline for them to create and fill up the posts needed to implement the Act. The deadline has passed but none of the parties — the Congress, BJP, CPM, CPI, NCP and the BSP — have instituted Public Information Officers (PIOS) or appellate authorities.

And the parties are in no mood to budge. When asked for the Congress’ view, Information & Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari said that he did not have information on whether the posts had been set up and added that the CIC order is “misconceived”. CPM Politburo member Brinda Karat sang the same tune. “No, we haven’t done it because we don’t agree with it and we have asked for an all-party meet on it,” she quipped.

The regular protocol for an organisation refusing to come under the RTI ambit is to challenge the ruling at a high court and obtain a temporary stay in order to avoid disciplinary action due to non-compliance. This is a tactic used by many organisations and public-private partnerships, in particular, to delay the implementation and possibly overturn the judgment in court.

However, the political parties are discussing an ordinance to amend Section 2 of the RTI Act to change the definition of “public authority” to exclude political parties. “The government is trying to bring a Bill to avoid taking the blame alone for weakening its flagship Act,” says Mumbai-based RTI activist Anil Galgali.

In the interim period, until the issue is put up for debate in the Monsoon Session of Parliament, as the Congress says it will, the parties become liable to follow the order.

“It’s complete lawlessness,” laments former Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi, adding that “the political parties have no respect for RTI; not only are they flouting its norms openly but are not even perturbed enough to ask for a stay order. It’s like saying, ‘we won’t follow the ruling, what will you do about it?”

Ironically, the CIC has no way of finding out whether the parties have complied, says Central Chief Information Commissioner Satyananda Mishra. “In the order, we didn’t ask them to report to us about compliance,” he says. This gives way to a peculiar situation. Though there is a penalty system in place to fine the PIO if information is denied or provided late, how does one take disciplinary action for not instituting PIOS in the first place? And that too when the parties don’t have to report their compliance? Mishra says that the parties can be summoned again and pulled up if the complainants make an application citing non- compliance.

But Anil Bairwal, one of the complainants, says, “We are more concerned about when they will give us the information we had asked for regarding maximum donations given to political parties. The CIC had given another four weeks after the six-week deadline to provide that information, so we have three more weeks to go. After that, we will surely haul them up. In the meantime, we are ready to challenge any ordinance, any stay that they may want.”

Similarly, the second complainant, Delhi-based RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal says that any ordinary citizen can file for non-compliance of the order at the moment and some have indeed done that.

Pune-based RTI activist Vihar Durve and some others have written to the Department of Personnel and Training as well as the CIC chief Mishra about the political parties defying the CIC order. Though they are yet to receive a reply, Durve says they will “take up the issue strongly as the political parties are acting in direct contravention of the RTI laws”.

But Agrawal fears a longer wait. “We may have to wait until August end for the four weeks to get over and then allow two weeks for postal time/delays, etc, and only then can we nail them for any non-compliance,” he says.

That, unfortunately, gives the government a chance to ignore the order and bide time until they can bring up the ordinance in the Monsoon Session, which is likely to begin on 5 August.

shonali@tehelka.com

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