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HindustanTimes Fri,19 Sep 2014

Not kept in the know
Shailesh Gandhi, Hindustan Times
New Delhi, July 10, 2013
First Published: 15:56 IST(10/7/2013)
Last Updated: 09:24 IST(11/7/2013)

There are strong indicators that the government, perhaps in tandem with other parties, is likely to amend the Right To Information (RTI) Act. The amendment will either name political parties as being exempt, or remove section 2 (h) (d) (i) and (ii).

This could exclude all Public Private Partnerships (PPP) and other bodies substantially funded by the government, and might be achieved either by an ordinance or an amendment tabled in Parliament.

Other amendments to constrict the RTI may be pushed along with this. The ostensible purpose is to undo the Central Information Commission's (CIC) decision, which rules that political parties - substantially funded by the government - are public authorities and have to come under the RTI regime.

Political parties have not explained why they are afraid of the RTI. They have only stated that the CIC has given an order that is bad in law. If that's the case, they can go in a writ to the high court against the CIC order and challenge it.

This has been done in hundreds of cases, and the courts have quashed CIC orders in many cases. However, it appears the government is sure about the legal validity of the CIC order, and is, therefore, considering committing a constitutional sacrilege by issuing an ordinance to constrict the citizen's fundamental right to information.

All shades of opinion in the RTI movement agree that there should be no amendments to the RTI Act, which is fairly good and is being extensively used. Though some improvements can be made, it is clear that any amendment is likely to weaken the Act, which currently hurts powerful interests, and challenges existing power structures.

For many years, citizens have managed to push back attempts to amend the Act by voicing their disapproval. It is necessary that they come together again and make their voices heard so the government and all political parties realise that there will be a political price to pay if any amendments are made to the RTI Act.

One of the driving forces of this movement was 'Hamara Paisa, Hamara Hisab'. The CIC decision, on political parties being public authorities and therefore under the ambit of RTI, is based on the parties having received substantial funding.

One of the basic philosophies of the RTI movement in India is that if an agency is financed by government funds, it must be answerable and transparent to the stakeholders of the nation - its citizens.

The ruling party, which takes great pride in having passed the RTI Act, has offered no valid explanation for its aversion to transparency. Transparency improves the functioning of all institutions that adopt it, and corrects arbitrariness.

If political parties had any long-term vision, they would realise that RTI will improve the political system and increase their credibility. Currently, citizens have little trust in political parties. The RTI can change this, and improve the quality of our democracy.

If citizens want to retain this fundamental right, they must defend it at this historical moment and let political parties know that they will oppose any amendments to the RTI Act.

Shailesh Gandhi is a former Central Information Commissioner

The views expressed by the author are personal


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