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House panel negates transparency order

- Backs amendment bill to keep parties out of RTI law’s ambit

New Delhi, Dec. 17: A parliamentary standing committee has overruled the country’s top law officer and backed proposed amendments that seek to keep political parties out of the ambit of the transparency law.

In a report tabled today, the committee said the planned changes to the Right to Information Act were “a right step to address the issue once and for all”.

The panel, headed by Congress MP Shantaram Naik, “recommend(ed)” that the bill be passed, going against the Central Information Commission’s June 3 ruling that said political parties came under the purview of the transparency act and had to open their books for public scrutiny.

Following the CIC ruling, the government had decided to amend the act and introduced a bill to keep parties out of the RTI law’s ambit. But consensus eluded the bill as parties like the Biju Janata Dal, Trinamul Congress and the CPI raised objections. The government then referred the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2013, to the committee.

Attorney-general G.E. Vahanvati, too, had voiced “apprehensions” that the proposed changes would not stand the test of judicial scrutiny as they were creating a “class within a class”.

Senior Supreme Court lawyer K.V. Dhananjay said the law officer’s view was based on Article 14 of the Constitution that guarantees the right to equality.

“Our Constitution commands that the law treat equals equally. In principle, a political party is nothing but an association of private individuals and is legally indistinguishable from a private company, society, trust or any other body of private persons. If the RTI Act were to exempt just one class of private persons who receive substantial financial assistance from its ambit, the law would not have treated equals equally,” Dhananjay explained.

“That’s when a court of law, the high court or our Supreme Court would be under a duty to also grant relief to a private person if he complained that he had been unjustly included under the RTI Act whereas political parties had been favoured by keeping them out of the act.”

In June, the CIC had, under Section 2(h) of the RTI Act, ruled that all non-government organisations substantially financed, directly or indirectly by funds provided by the appropriate government, came under the act’s purview.

A full bench of the CIC held that six parties — the Congress, BJP, CPM, CPI, NCP and the BSP — to which petitioners had addressed RTI queries, fulfilled the criteria for “public authorities” as defined in the act.

The House committee, in its report, observed that the “aspects of transparency of the financial matters” of parties were “fully covered” under the Representation of People Act, 1951, and, therefore, they need not come under the purview of the RTI Act.

It quoted provisions of the Representation of People Act such as declaration of assets and liabilities and of contributions received in excess of Rs 20,000, maintenance of correct accounts of election expenditure and penalty for filing false affidavits. It noted that other laws also ensured “adequate transparency in respect of financial matters”.

“The Representation of People Act, 1951, as well as the Income Tax Act, 1961, deal with transparency in financial aspects relating to the parties and their candidates,” Naik told reporters after submitting the report. “Declaring political parties as public authority under the RTI Act would hamper their smooth internal functioning. Party rivals may misuse the provisions of the RTI Act, adversely affecting the functioning of political parties.”

The amendment bill is likely to come up for debate in Parliament’s ongoing session.