Welcoming the judgement by the full bench of the Central Information Commission (CIC) today bringing political parties under the ambit of the RTI Act, litigant Subhash Chandra Agrawal said the order will have long term effect on the country’s political scenario.
“This order is going to have far reaching impact on accountability in political system which is currently polluted by corruption,” said Delhi-based social activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal, one of the litigants in the matter.
The CIC declared that political parties as public authorities, thereby, bringing them under Right to Information (RTI) Act. The full bench of the Commission, which had reserved its order after hearing the representations of litigants and political parties, made it public on Monday.
“We hold that INC, BJP, CPI(M), CPIO, NCP and BSP have been substantially financed by the central government under section 2(h) (ii) of the RTI Act. The criticality of the role being played by these political parties in our democratic set up and the nature of duties performed by them also point towards their public character, bringing them in the ambit of section 2(h). The constitutional and legal provisions discussed herein above also point towards their character as public authorities,” ruled the CIC.
The Commission has given six weeks time to political parties to appoint central public information officers and the appellate authorities to respond to RTI queries.
Jagdeep Chokar, founder member of Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), an organisation which works for transparency and accountability in political parties, said while it was a welcome order, he would not be surprised if political parties challenge the CIC order in a high court.
The order emanated from RTI applications filed by Anil Bairwal of ADR and Agrawal to political parties in years 2010 and 2011 respectively. Political parties told both the applicants that they did not come under the purview of the RTI Act.
Both the applicants then filed complaints with the CIC against the responses received from political parties. They contended that the political parties, being beneficiaries of the government, fell under the ambit of the RTI Act.
The CIC clubbed both the complaints as they raised similar issues pertaining to political parties.
According to the law, the RTI Act is applicable only to public authorities, which is defined as any authority body established by or under the constitution; by a law made by Parliament or state legislature; by a government notification. It includes anybody owned, controlled or substantially financed institution by the government.
During the hearing before the CIC, the litigants argued that political parties are substantially financed by the government of the day in multiple ways including land given at concessional rates and are exempt from income tax.
The salient points made by Agrawal in his representation are:
(i) The political parties hold constitutional status and wield constitutional powers under the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution in as much as they have the power to —
a) disqualify legislators from Parliament and state assemblies;
b) bind legislators in their speeches and voting inside the house;
c) decide what laws are made;
d) decide whether government remains in power or which government
should come to power;
e) decide public policies that affect lives of millions of people.”
The arguments include that the government has been indirectly financing various political parties by way of free air time on All India Radio and Doordarshan. These points were presented to the Commission to make a strong case to bring parties under the ambit of RTI Act.
“Income tax returns of political parties obtained by ADR using the RTI Act reveal that on an average only about 20 percent of the income of political parties comes from donations that they disclose to the Election Commission. The sources of the remaining 80 percent of the income are shrouded in mystery. This is what gives rise to all kinds of speculation about the pernicious influence of illegal money,” submitted Bairwal.
The two major political parties Congress and BJP made a bland assertion that they are not public authorities under the RTI Act, the CIC order said. However, CPI(M) disclosed some information to the Commission regarding allotment of land to it by the Central government on certain terms and conditions but did not concede that it is public authority under the RTI Act.
NCP’s counsel submitted that all the provisions mentioned by the complainants such as free air time, allotment of land and tax exemption, cannot be construed as financing of political parties by the Central government.
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