Political parties yet to comply with RTI Act

SC to hear petitioner next week

March 21, 2019 10:40 pm | Updated 10:40 pm IST - NEW DELHI

NEW DELHI, 14/03/2019: A view of Supreme Court of India , in New Delhi on Thursday .  Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma / The Hindu

NEW DELHI, 14/03/2019: A view of Supreme Court of India , in New Delhi on Thursday . Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma / The Hindu

In a time of deep political polarisation, refusing to comply with the RTI Act seems to be one of the few issues that has united national parties across the ideological spectrum.

Despite a June 2013 ruling from the Central Information Commission (CIC) that they fall within the ambit of the transparency law, parties insist that they cannot be considered public authorities under the Act.

Six years later, on the verge of another Lok Sabha election, the Supreme Court is set to adjudicate on the issue, with a petition filed jointly by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) and RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal coming up for a hearing on March 26.

“We filed the petition because parties are defying the law and the CIC was unable to do anything about it,” said Shivani Kapoor, who heads ADR’s legal research team. “National political parties are the main players as far as elections are concerned. In a democratic system of governance, it is essential that they are held accountable by informed citizens.”

Most political parties refused to comment publicly on the issue, saying it was sub judice, although a Congress spokesperson told The Hindu that parties could not be considered public authorities under the Act.

Nothing to hide: CPI

“We are in favour of transparency, but we don’t get any government funding, so how can we be considered public authorities under the Act,” said D. Raja, Rajya Sabha MP and national secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI). He added that internal discussions of the party could not be made public. “With regard to finances, we have nothing to hide. We provide information to the Election Commission and the Income Tax authorities.”

RTI activists say that only limited financial information is available. “Especially given that limits on corporate funding have been removed, and the issues with electoral bonds and foreign funding, and the potential for conflict of interest, it is important that parties are subject to RTI,” said Ms. Kapoor. “We should also be able to ask for information on internal party democracy. How are candidates selected, for example?”

ADR has argued that national parties receive hundreds of crores worth of indirect funding in the form of complete tax exemption, free airtime on government television and radio and bungalows and large tracts of land given free or at nominal rates in prime parts of Delhi and state capitals. They also have constitutional and legal responsibilities as they are registered with the Election Commission of India (ECI) and play a vital role in public life and governance. A number of non-governmental organisations, trusts, schools and clubs have also been declared public authorities under the Act.

The issue goes back to October 2010, when ADR filed an RTI request seeking information on donations and contributions received by political parties. Of the six parties then recognised by the Election Commission as national parties, only one, the CPI, accepted that it was a public authority under the Act. (It later changed its stance.) The Congress, Nationalist Congress Party and the CPI(M) denied they had any obligations under the Act. The BJP and the BSP did not even respond.

ADR complained to the CIC, the highest appellate body under the RTI Act.In June 2013, a full bench of the CIC ruled that the national parties are public authorities under Section 2(h) of the Act, and directed them to make voluntary disclosures, appoint public information officers and respond to RTI applications.

In the six years since that ruling, parties have refused to comply, and show cause notices issued by CIC bore no fruit. In March 2015, CIC admitted it was powerless to enforce its ruling. “The Commission is not geared to handling situations…where the respondents have disengaged from the process,” it said. Terming it a case of “wilful noncompliance”, the CIC said it was “bereft of the tools to get its orders complied with.” Two months later, ADR and Mr. Agarwal filed a petition in the Supreme Court on the issue.

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