The last few days have seen political parties splitting hairs over the Central Information Commission’s order on including them under the ambit of the Right to Information Act. But this is not the first time that the CIC has passed an order which includes bodies or organisations — in essence, public authorities — under the Act.

Take, for instance, the case of the Public Health Foundation of India. In response to an RTI application, the PHFI had argued that as a public-private partnership initiative, it was a completely autonomous institution and not a public authority governed by the RTI Act. The CIC ruled that public servants were on the board of the PHFI and they were obviously representatives of the government. It also ruled that the organisation received substantial financing from the government, a major point the CIC raised in the order pertaining to political parties.

“The PHFI is controlled and substantially financed by the government. Therefore, the PHFI is a public authority,” said the February 2012 order.

The furore began when the Central Information Commission, on June 3, ordered that six national political parties — the Congress, BJP, NCP, CPI (M), CPI and BSP — be brought under the RTI Act as they were public authorities. The CIC had ruled that the parties received “substantial financing” from the government in the form of subsidies, tax exemptions and benefits, and so it was binding on them to appoint Public Information Officers. The six political parties were given tax exemption to the tune of Rs. 510 crore from 2006 to 2009. The government spent roughly Rs. 28.56 lakh for free airtime on All India Radio in 2009. Apart from that, all the parties have been given land at very low rates in prime areas.

Subsequently, the Union Cabinet approved an amendment to the RTI Act on August 1 which aimed at keeping political parties out of its ambit and stated that the CIC order was not binding on these parties. The amendment, which is likely to come up for discussion in Parliament on Monday, would kill the spirit of the Act, say activists.

So what is ‘substantial financing’? Section 2(h) of the RTI Act does not lay down an exact definition. The word ‘substantial’ is akin to ‘material’ or ‘important’ or ‘of considerable value’ and would depend on the facts and circumstances of the case. “The explanation is based on the ‘hamara paisa, hamara hisaab [our money is subject to our scrutiny]’ — a phrase coined during the crusade for implementing the RTI Act eight years ago,” said former Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi.

Another instance is that of an order in June 2010 which brought the Pension Trust under the RTI Act. The CIC ruled that the Delhi government had given Rs. 1,303 crore to the trust in 2002-03. When the case came up for hearing, the CIC found that the funding was more than 66% of the total amount available with the Pension Trust.

Similarly, the Indian Olympic Association, — though autonomous from the Central government in its affairs and management — was deemed a “public authority” by the Delhi High Court in January 2010 as the IOA depended on government funding to assist travel and transportation of sportsmen and sports managers. In the same judgment, the Delhi High Court also held the Sanskriti School to be a public authority as it availed substantial financing from the government. In another decision of January 2011, the Central Information Commission held that the Chandigarh Club was a public authority because the rent on the 3.85 lakh square feet land leased to the Club was not at a par with the market rate.

“The premise has been the same: the purpose of the RTI Act is transparency and accountability in the functioning of entities which impact citizens’ daily lives. So why should political parties be kept out?” asked Ajit Ranade, founder member of the Association for Democratic Reforms.

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