The Indian government has signalled its intention to amend the Right to Information Act, 2005, in order to ensure that political parties do not fall under its purview.
Earlier reports had suggested that the government may seek to promulgate an ordinance amending Section 8 of the Act (exemptions) in order to counter the Central Information Commission’s 3rd June order which stated that as they are “substantially financed” by the central government, political parties are public authorities under Section 2(h) of the Act. Others had expected the government to challenge the order by filing a writ petition in the High Court.
Sources have stated however that the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), the nodal agency responsible for the implementation of the Act at the central level, has prepared a cabinet note and will seek cabinet approval within the week. The proposed amendments have reportedly been cleared by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who is concurrently the minister-in-charge of the DoPT. The Cabinet note will include a validation clause giving it retroactive effect from the date of the original CIC decision.
It is likely that the government will place an amendment bill before parliament in the forthcoming monsoon session. Both the CIC decision and the government’s various efforts to counter it have led to a rare display of unity among India’s major political parties who are keen to keep themselves insulated from the purview of the Act.
At the same time, opinion among RTI activists has been divided, with some arguing that though there is a clear need for greater transparency in the workings and finances of political parties, the task falls to the Election Commission of India and not the Central Information Commission. Others have argued that the decision has taken a functional rather than institutional definition of public authorities and is thus, in the long run, as much of a threat to civil society as it is to political parties. Many have expressed concern that the decision will provide political cover for drastic, regressive amendments to the Act. In an attempt to redefine ‘public authority’ under Section 2 of the Act, many are concerned that the government may repeal Sections 2(h)i and ii altogether, which would effectively remove public-private partnerships (PPPs) from the ambit of the Act.
A group of eminent citizens, including former Delhi High Court Chief Justice AP Shah, former Cabinet Secretary TSR Subramanian, former CIC Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi and CHRI Coordinator Venkatesh Nayak, have written to parliamentarians expressing their opposition to amending the RTI Act (read more).
“There are reports in the media that a Bill is likely to be presented in Parliament to amend the RTI Act. The reasons being given publicly are that the CIC order declaring political parties, as public authorities, subject to RTI is bad in law.” As far as this is true, the letter went on to argue that “the CIC order can be challenged in a writ petition in the High Court,” adding that there had been many prior instances of “these orders having been quashed in courts.” The letter argued that as none of the parties had filed for a stay, they have demonstrated that they simply “expect to amend the law in Parliament to justify and legitimise their defiance of a statutory order.”
The letter went on to defend the role that the RTI Act has played in uncovering corruption and instances of bad governance. “The key principle in defining the bodies to be covered by the RTI Act was based on the movement’s slogan, hamara paisa, hamara hisab. Hence all government bodies were covered by the RTI Act and also other institutions which may be ‘substantially funded’ by the government were covered.”
Arguing that the RTI Act never damaged any institution, the letter said: “Some political representatives have claimed that they would not like to be questioned about their processes of decision making. RTI only gives access to citizens to the records of a public authority, and does not entitle the citizen to question the merits of the decisions.”