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RTI Act to be amended to exempt parties from being questioned

By Anita Katyal
July 31, 2013 21:26 IST
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The government has proposed that political parties cannot be designated public authorities as defined in the RTI Act. Anita Katyal reports  

The Union Cabinet is all set to amend the Right to Information Act to exempt political parties from being questioned under this law when it meets in New Delhi on Thursday.

The Centre has suggested amendments to the RTI Act to exclude political parties from the definition of “public authority” so that no questions can be asked about their financial functioning.   

After the Cabinet gives the go ahead, the amended law will be placed before Parliament for its approval. Unlike other contentious bills that are blocked by the opposition, this one is likely have a smooth passage in Parliament since there is agreement across the political spectrum on the proposed  changes.

The ruling alliance moved quickly to amend the RTI Act after the Central Information Commission ruled in June that six political parties -- Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party, Communist Party of India-Marxist, Communist Party of India, Nationalist Congress Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party -- are public authorities as per the RTI Act and, therefore, open to scrutiny under the act.

Responding to a petition filed by activists Subhash Aggarwal and Anil Bairwal, the CIC had said that though political parties are constituted by the Election Commission, they perform certain public duties and get indirect favours from the government in the form of land for office buildings, income tax exemptions and free air time on AIR and Doordarshan.

It also pointed out that organisations like the Indian Olympic Association, Chandigarh Lawn Tennis Association and India International Centre have also been brought under the ambit of the RTI Act.

"Large tracts of land in prime areas of Delhi have been placed at the disposal of the political parties in question at exceptionally low rates. Besides, huge government accommodations have been placed at the disposal of political parties at hugely cheap rates thereby bestowing financial benefits on them," the CIC order had said.

The CIC had further said political parties "affect the lives of the citizens, directly or indirectly in every conceivable way and are continuously engaged in performing public duty. It is, therefore, important that they become accountable to public."

According to the RTI Act, a public authority is defined “as an institution, body or self government established or constituted by the Constitution or any other law of Parliament or state legislature or any other order issued by the government.”

The government has countered the order, saying that political parties are governed by provisions in the Income Tax Act and the Representation of the People Act regarding transparency and their financial functioning. In other words, they are accountable to the Election Commission.

It has argued that as per these provisions political parties are expected to declare donations exceeding Rs 20,000. Moreover, political parties are expected to file their income tax returns, failing which they are not entitled to any tax relief.

It has also been pointed out that candidates are required to submit a list of their liabilities and assets under section 75 of the Representation of the People Act. Further, section 77A of the same act places an obligation on all candidates to maintain accounts of the expenditure incurred and authorised by them during an election while section 78 lays down that candidates file details of their expenses to the district election officer. In case, these are found to be false, candidates are liable to be penalised.

It is on the basis of these arguments that the government has proposed that political parties cannot be designated public authorities as defined in the RTI Act.

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Anita Katyal in New Delhi
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