All parties in RTI net

CIC decision to bring in transparency, probity

All parties in RTI net

The Central Information Commission (CIC) on Monday brought political parties under the ambit of the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

The CIC recognised the need for bringing the parties under public scrutiny in view of benefits like allocation of land at throwaway prices and tax exemption enjoyed by them.

 The CIC decision may usher in an era of transparency in the functioning of the parties.

A full bench decision of the apex transparency panel rejected the contention of major political parties like the Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Communist Party of India (CPI), CPM, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) that they could not be described as public bodies.

“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 accommodation has been placed at the disposal of the political parties at cheap rates thereby bestowing financial benefits on them.

Income-Tax exemptions granted and the free air time at All India Radio and Doordarshan at the time of elections have also substantially contributed to the financing of the political parties by the Central government,” the bench noted.

“We have, therefore, no hesitation in concluding that the INC, BJP, CPM, CPI, NCP and the BSP have been substantially financed by the Central government and, therefore, they are held to be public authorities under Section 2(h) of the RTI Act,” said the bench presided over by Chief Information Commissioner Satyananda Mishra.

Appellate authorities

The commission directed the political parties to appoint chief public information officers and appellate authorities within six weeks and furnish all details sought under the RTI Act in four weeks, as mandated by the law.

Attempts at bringing transparency in the functioning of the political parties have faced stiff resistance in the past. Affidavits filed by candidates with the Election Commission after every parliamentary election are sent to Income-Tax authorities for ascertaining their veracity. On most occasions, the I-T probe is never initiated due to lack of political will, said observers.

RTI activist Subhash C Agrawal and Anil Bairwal of the voluntary organisation Association of Democratic Reforms, on whose complaints the verdict was pronounced, hailed it as a “landmark judgment” which would set a “new benchmark in transparency regime.”

A plea seeking information on land allotments and donations received was denied by the political parties on the pretext that they were not public authorities and therefore, they do not come under the purview of the RTI Act.

Public body

The parties had claimed that tax exemption could not be called “a form of government financing,” which was necessary for an organisation to be called a public body. This benefit was also available to several NGOs, they contended.

The 54-page order by the CIC bench, also comprising information commissioners Annapurna Dixit and M L Sharma, noted that “the tax exemption given to political parties was complete. In the case of the NGOs, it was strictly conditional.”

The CIC said the political parties, after being registered with the Election Commission, “get a number of benefits” like the right to accept contribution from both citizens and private companies and complete income-tax exemption from all their incomes.

Under scanner

* CIC takes note of benefits enjoyed by political parties
* Observes that they are substantially funded by Central govt
* Parties to appoint chief public information officers and appellate authorities within
six weeks
* They have to furnish all details sought under the RTI Act in four weeks
* The parties had contended that they could not be called public bodies
* They claimed that tax exemption could not be called “a form of government
financing”

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