RTI activists accuse CIC of abdicating responsibility after political parties exempt themselves
Ashish Mehta | March 19, 2015
Political parties have a predictable attitude when it comes to transparency: that it is a very good thing and it must apply to everybody – other than us. It was of course a political party that decided to usher in the revolution through the Right to Information nine years ago, opening up the whole spectrum of administration and even beyond to questioning from the citizen. But if the citizen wanted to know a single harmless thing about the party, it will not answer.
Since political parties receive state support in the form of tax concessions, grand properties in the heart of the capital, free air time on AIR, and so on, they should be, technically speaking, named ‘public authorities’ under the RTI Act. If the Congress and BJP are declared ‘public authorities’ they will have to appoint information officers and answer queries from people, just the way any ministry or government department does. With that argument, RTI activists were making a case for long.
In June 2013, the central information commission (CIC) surprised many by declaring the six national parties – Congress BJP, NCP, BSP, CPM and CPI – as public authorities. [Order attached below] Activists were jubilant at first, then anxious, and then in despair – since nothing moved on ground, and none of the six parties bothered to name any info officers. So, the petitioner-activists went back to CIC complaining of non-compliance, which would hold a hearing, and no representative of any party would turn up.
On March 16, CIC gave up. It said it could do little since the political parties had refused to comply. [Order attached below]
There are two issues here. One is old, that political parties do not want to be forced to open up. For this they have invented a series of excuses: that their internal information can be sensitive and open to misuse by rivals (but then the RTI Act itself exempts revealing such information), that they would have trouble replying to a barrage of queries (no department has suffered so far). In any case, no party has said it would give up state benefits – the sole factor that makes them ‘public authorities’. Also, none of them has put forward any coherent argument against transparency.
What the political parties did was to rush to parliament (where they call the shots) with an amendment in the law, to exempt themselves. A parliamentary standing committee recommended adoption of the amendment bill without any change. But it lapsed after the Lok Sabha was dissolved in May 2014.
Now these parties have, even without the excuse of the amendment in the law, plainly ignored the order of the most powerful institution under the RTI Act, making a mockery of the law. Why should anybody comply with CIC directives after this precedent?
The second issue is the CIC. RTI campaigners are furious at the way it threw up its hands.
The CIC’s reasoning is that since the political parties are not government departments, penalties cannot be imposed on any individual and even if imposed there would be no mechanism to realize it. Compensation cannot be awarded to the complainants under the RTI Act as there is no demonstrable loss or detriment caused to them. All CIC has done is to forwarded a copy of its order to the department of personnel and training (DoPT) to look at the gaps in the law and take any action it may deem appropriate.
By the way, 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.
For critique, let us quote from Venkatesh Nayak, (programme coordinator, Access to Information Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative), who explains in an email what is wrong with the CIC decision:
“The CIC's decision unwittingly or otherwise ends up creating an impression that it lacks the power (or 'mettle' or 'spunk' or 'spine' whichever expression you prefer) 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’ in accordance with the provisions of the RTI Act, the CIC issued notice about launching criminal action against the DoPT under the following provisions of the Indian Penal Code:
1) Section 166 - Public servant disobeying law with intent to cause injury to any person;
2) Section 187 - Omission to assist public servant when bound by law to give assistance; and
3) Section 188 - Disobedience to order duly promulgated by a public servant.
“These offences invite fines and a prison term from two months to one year. When threatened with legal action, the DoPT fell in line. Incidentally, the RTI applicant in this case is also a complainant in the current political parties' non-compliance case. Strangely, the CIC does not seem to have adopted such a course of action in the current case.”
One of the two original petitioners, Subhash Chandra Agrawal, says in an email: “The CIC verdict on non-compliance will have far-reaching, dangerous consequences when bodies declared by it as public authorities will no more care to obey its directions; thus delivering a final blow to the RTI Act – and that too from none other than CIC itself.
“It is despite the fact that the verdict has taken on record the verdict dated March 5, 2012 of the Andhra Pradesh high court in writ petition No. 1380/2012 in the matter of ‘Kadiyam Shekhar Babu vs Chairman AP Public Service Commission’ wherein it was observed that in case the respondents did not comply with the said order passed by the information commission, then remedy of the petitioner is under Section 20 of the Right to Information Act, 2005 before the said information commission.”
Agrawal says that even the presidents or secretaries of the political parties could have been taken as deemed central principal information officers (CPIOs) in the absence of appointment of CPIOs by defaulting political parties.
“CIC has no proper procedure to tackle cases on non-compliance of its verdicts by bodies declared by it as public authorities. Even though the first notice on non-compliance was issued on February 7, 2014, complaint number CIC/CC/C/2015/000182 for non-compliance was registered more than a year later on March 11, 2015 – just five days before the CIC verdict that too on non-compliance petition dated December 10, 2013 and not on the basis of the first one dated August 27, 2013. Enquiry should be made how CIC issued notices and even held hearings without registering the complaint-petition CIC/CC/C/2015/000182.”
Nayak writes, “The members of the full bench of the CIC … have simply abdicated their responsibility by feigning fatigue. The faith of the people in the capability of the CIC to deliver justice, which was fast eroding, has now reached a nadir from which it will be difficult to extricate it unless there is a change of guard. By following Gandhiji's practice of penance, the commissioners who gave this woefully inadequate decision must resign from their offices. This is the only way they can salvage whatever is left of their reputation as information commissioners.”
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