On 3 June, 2013, in a landmark ruling the Central Information Commission (CIC) declared that all political parties will come under the purview of RTI Act as they are public authorities. Therefore, they have to disclose the information of the political donations received with the details of sources/ donors in a transparent manner.
The RTI authority also directed the political parties to designate public information officers and appellate authorities at their headquarters. CIC gave a ruling saying the political parties are construed as public authorities as defined under RTI.
Under the RTI Act, a public authority is one that is substantially financed, or directly or indirectly funded by the appropriate government. Since political parties get income tax exemptions, concessions and benefits in allotment of land for construction of their party offices etc., the RTI authority gave a ruling that political parties come under the definition of public authority. However, the election commission differed with the RTI authority and refused to entertain any requests for disclosure of the details of sources of donations received by political parties.
Sec 2(h) of RTI Act that says “public authority” means any authority or body or institution of self government established or constituted—
(a) by or under the Constitution;
(b) by any other law made by Parliament;
(c) by any other law made by State Legislature;
(d) by notification issued or order made by the appropriate Government,
and includes any—
(i) body owned, controlled or substantially financed;
(ii) non-Government organisation substantially financed, directly or indirectly by funds provided by the appropriate Government;
The CIC gave its ruling classifying political parties as public authorities though they are non-government organizations as they are substantially financed by the public through donations and they also get tax exemption from the government for their incomes.
Though the CIC order that declares political parties come under the purview of RTI Act has not been challenged in the higher courts, the political parties refused to entertain the RTI queries raised against them. CIC has declared six national parties as public authorities, viz., BJP, Congress, BSP, NCP, CPI, CPI (M). Trinamool Congress Party was subsequently added to this list in September, 2016.
However, unfortunately the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) of Election Commission took a different stand saying political parties are out of the purview of RTI Act, when a query was raised with regard to the details of the donations received by the six national political parties under the newly introduced electoral bonds.
Also none of the political parties complied with the order of CIC dated 3rd June, 2013 the CIC sent notices to the respondents- the above mentioned political parties but these political parties did not even accept the notices sent by CIC nor did they bother to appear before the CIC, The RTI authority.
Finally on 16th March, 2015 the CIC said the RTI Act does not accord the Commission with adequate powers to handle the cases of contempt and non-compliance of its orders. To quote the words of CIC,
“The Commission is not geared to handling situations such as the present instance where the respondents have disengaged from the process. The Commission, having declared the respondents to be public authorities, is unable to get them to function so. … An obvious conclusion is that in cases such as this, the Commission is bereft of the tools to get its orders complied with.”
On 19th May, 2015 the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) and RTI activist Mr. Subhash Chandra Agrawal filed a petition in the Supreme Court appealing the honourable court to declare all national and regional political parties as “public authorities” and include them under the purview of RTI Act.
The first hearing in the case took place on 7th July 2015 wherein the Apex Court admitted the plea and sought responses from all the national political parties, Election Commission and the Central government. To its counter, Government of India had filed its affidavit stating that they do not come under RTI Act.
There are two important issues that are to be resolved by the Supreme Court in this matter.
- Whether the political parties come under the ambit of RTI Act?
- What is the mechanism to ensure that RTI‘s orders are either accepted or contested by the parties on whom such orders are served by the CIC?
While the resolution of the first issue mentioned above will put to rest on whether the political parties come under the ambit of RTI Act or not, Supreme Court’s directives on the second issue mentioned above will ensure restoration of the credibility of the Central Information Commission. Let us hope the Supreme Court will give due priority to this case and give its final verdict at an early date.
(Featured image: The Economics Times)
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