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Political parties need not act as public authorities, RTI watchdog rules; activists angry

By Our Representative
The Central Information Commission (CIC), the national watchdog of right to information (RTI), has said it cannot do anything about the six national level political parties, which have refused to comply with its two-year old order declaring them public authorities under the RTI Act. Reacting strongly, senior RTI activist Venkatesh Nayak has termed the decision "tame", adding it is a "body blow" to the regime of transparency established by the Act.
According to the CIC decision, as the political parties are not government departments, penalties cannot be imposed on any leader or member and even if imposed there would be no mechanism for realising it. It said, compensation also cannot be awarded to the complainants under the RTI Act, as there is no demonstrable loss or detriment caused to the complainants.
Nayak, who is programme coordinator of the Access to Information Programme under the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), said, "The CIC refused to even make a recommendation to the authorities to withdraw the privileges and facilities provided to these political parties at the taxpayers' expense."
"Instead", he added, "The CIC has forwarded a copy of the order to the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) to look at the gaps in the RTI Act and take any action it may deem appropriate."
The issue goes back to June 2013, when a full bench of the CIC declared six national level political parties -- Congress, BJP, the two Communist parties, Bahujan Samaj Party and the Nationalist Congress Party -- as public authorities.
By holding that these political parties were substantially financed by public funds and also pointing to their centrality to the democratic process in various spheres of decision-making, the CIC placed them on par with other public authorities that have similar obligations.
Rather than challenge this decision in a court of law, all political parties, including the State level parties authorised the Central Government to bring amendments to the RTI Act to keep them all out of its ambit and prevent citizens from seeking any information form them directly under this law.
While the Bill tabled in the Lok Sabha died a natural death with the dissolution of the House in May 2014, Nayak said, "Hundreds of thousands of people in India as well as those residing abroad joined the nation-wide campaign to leave the RTI Act unaltered. Realising the public mood, the six political parties chose to ignore the order instead."
This made RTI activists to complaint to the CIC alleging "non-compliance", Nayak said, adding, "Most of the political parties showed scant respect for the CIC's proceedings. After making the motions of holding an inquiry over several months, a full bench of the CIC has finally decided to wind up the inquiry holding that it can do nothing to secure compliance with its own orders."
Nayak comments, "The CIC's decision unwittingly or otherwise ends up creating an impression that it lacks the power (or 'mettle' or 'spunk' or 'spine') to ensure compliance with its orders."
This is not the first instance where the CIC was faced with a situation of non-compliance. In 2009 when the CIC faced a similar situation where the DoPT persistently refused to comply with its order regarding providing access to "file notings", the CIC issued notice about launching criminal action against the DoPT. But "when threatened with legal action, the DoPT fell in line."

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