Panel to look at Supreme Court ruling defining term ‘substantially funded’ by government

The Parliamentary Standing Committee scrutinising the Right to Information (Amendment) Act with regard to the question of bringing political parties within its ambit will be looking at the Supreme Court judgment in the Thalapalam Service Cooperative Bank Ltd. case in which the term “substantially financed” by the government — the rationale provided by the Central Information Commission for bringing political parties under the Act — has been defined.

Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law Chairman, Justice Shantaram Naik, said the judgment was only incidental to the matter at hand, but Venkatesh Nayak from the Access to Information Programme at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative maintained that it opened a window of opportunity to the political class to escape coming under Act.

In the October 7 judgment, a two-member Bench of the Court sought to define the term ‘substantially financed’: “Merely providing subsidiaries, grants, exemptions, privileges etc., as such, cannot be said to be providing funding to a substantial extent, unless the record shows that the funding was so substantial to the body which practically runs by such funding and but for such funding, it would struggle to exist.”

‘Political parties will be happy’

Reacting to this judgment, Mr. Nayak said: “All in all, political parties are going to be very happy reading it as they can use it now to support their claims of being private bodies. However, it must be remembered that as elements constituting a multiparty system which is an inherent part of the basic structure of the Indian Constitution, political parties cannot get away from the duty of transparency as easily as other NGOs.”

In a related development, Attorney General G.E. Vahanvati, deposing before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Tuesday, said political parties should abide by the CIC’s order.

Premise for undoing CIC’s decision

The proposed Bill under consideration by the Committee seeks to undo the CIC’s decision on the premise that it would open up political parties to petitions regarding their decision-making process as well as expose them to harassment.

On June 3, the CIC directed all six national political parties to appoint public information officers within six weeks as they all have at some point of time received funding from the government.

The CIC directive was opposed by the political class with near unanimity. On the basis of the reaction from across the political spectrum, the government decided to amend the RTI Act but the matter was referred to the Standing Committee in view of public sentiment against the political class’s refusal to subject itself to scrutiny, and opposition from some political parties.

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