Despite the din and the adjournments, the one bill that seems most likely to get passed this Monsoon session of Parliament is the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2013.
Introduced in the Lok Sabha on Monday, the bill seeks to amend the RTI Act to explicitly exclude political parties from its purview. The efficiency and speed with which the UPA government approved and then introduced the bill in the Lok Sabha probably makes it a contender for the record books.
Be that as it may, this desperate and brazen bid by the government to shield political parties from the RTI Act — a law which ironically it never misses a chance to take credit for— is misplaced and futile, say RTI activists who are confident that the amendment, should it be passed, will not stand in a court of law.
The mad rush to introduce this amendment in the RTI Act comes in the wake of a game-changing order passed by the Central Information Commission on 3 June that held that six national parties (Congress, BJP, BSP, NCP, CPI CPM) fall under the ambit of the RTI Act since they “have been substantially financed by the Central government and, therefore, they are held to be public authorities under Section 2(h) of the RTI Act.”
The controversial RTI amendment bill was introduced in Parliament amid wide-spread public protests across India and activists have resolved to move court if it is passed by Parliament.
Questioning the intent and legitimacy of the amendment that has been proposed, National Campaign for Right to Information (NCPRI) member Nikhil Dey, who has been part the grassroots RTI movement led by Aruna Roy, says, “Even Intelligence and Security agencies, which are exempted from the Act under Section 24, have to answer questions on corruption and human rights violations. Here, (with the proposed amendment) they have created an island of anyone that is registered under Representation of People’s Act. Legally, I don’t think this will stand.”
Citing the legal grounds on which the amendment could be challenged, Anjali Bharadwaj, founder of citizen’s vigilance group Satark Nagarik Sangathan, says “It goes against the very principal of equality. Essentially, what the government is saying is that political parties are unique and that they deserve special treatment. Why should political parties be exempt when every other body which is substantially financially funded by the government falls under the RTI Act. That is a key issue.”
Describing the government’s decision to introduce the bill without any public consultation or debate as injudicious, Bharadwaj, who is also member of NCPRI says, “If they (government) felt that the CIC order was wrong, they should have challenged it in court. The fact that they haven’t challenged it in court means that they don’t see anything that is legally incorrect with that order. They should have then abided by the order of the CIC, which is a statutory body. Instead, they are getting together to amend laws in Parliament to suit themselves. This is completely arrogant.”
Dey points out how political parties are in flagrant violation of the law by not following the CIC order. “They are all in gross and flagrant violation of the law. There is a CIC order which said that on 15 July political parties must appoint PIOs (Public Information Officers). While all of them expressed their opposition to the CIC order, none of them went to court. Today they are in open violation of the legal system and the rule of law. And brazenness of that open violation is the amendment they've introduced in Parliament.”
Reminding the government of the commitment it made in 2009 not to pass any amendments to the RTI Act without consultation, Bharadwaj said, “The NCPRI organised an open forum and invited political parties to present their points of view and listen to the people’s points of view. The only politician who came was D Raja from the CPI. Nobody else even bothered to interact with the people. This whole process of subverting public consultation and ganging up together is simply unacceptable.”
Drawing attention to hurried manner in which the government has introduced RTI amendment bill in Parliament, Bharadwaj says, “Many progressive legislations that can clean up the system are not being brought in. For instance, the Lokpal Bill, the Grievance Redressal Bill and the Whistleblower Bill have been languishing in Parliament. There have been discussions on these Bills and standing committees have given their reports on them. And yet those have not been taken up for passage. Why this sudden urgency and the haste to amend this law which is the one piece of progressive legislation the public has got to hold powerful interests to account.”
Bharadwaj says activists are still hopeful that better sense will prevail and that the political parties will decide against amending the law. “But if they go ahead, we will have to see what the nature of the amendments are and depending on that we will move court.”