By Shruti Sharma, Campus Law Centre, Delhi University.
Right to Information Act, which replaced the erstwhile Freedom of Information Act, 2002, was passed by the Parliament on 15th June, 2005, but it came into force on 12th October 2005. The basic and foremost objective of bringing this act into force was to promote transparency and increase accountability in the working of every public authority in India.
The Act introduced mandatory provisions for every public authority to computerize and make records of all the information relating to their work for wide dissemination to the people, so that as a result, people need minimum resort to request for the desired information formally. Prior to RTI Act, disclosure of information concerned with public authorities was very difficult and flow of such information was restricted by the Official Secrets Act, 1923 and some other laws. Such impositions were finally relaxed by the enforcement of RTI Act in 2005.
RTI Act covers the whole of India except the state of Jammu and Kashmir (where J&K RTI Act applies). All Constitutional Authorities consisting of the Executive, Legislature, Judiciary, or be it any Institute established by any Act of Parliament or State Legislature, comes within the preview of RTI Act. However, Private Bodies are exempted from the RTI Act. Also, it is pertinent to note that not all Public Authorities come under the domain of RTI Act. There are some exclusions in the form of agencies like IB, CBI, CRPF, NSG, RAW etc. Additionally, if information so asked is capable of prejudicing Sovereignty, Security, Economic or Social Interest of the State, or if it endangers the life or safety of any person in any way, such information remains excluded from the ambit of RTI Act and is legally not provided when asked by a citizen.
RTI Act can be considered as a major breakthrough step towards empowering a common man by proving him the power to ask for the information relating to any public authority in an easy and rightfully manner. It can also be said that, since its commencement, the RTI Act has proven to be a milestone in gradual reduction of this evil monster better known as “corruption” in our country. The reason behind this gradual reduction of corruption is that the RTI Act aims at bringing transparency in almost every public department by making its officials answerable directly to the people; such procedure creates a fear of getting caught in the minds of these people who once thought that they can get away with anything and everything without risking even a single penny. When it comes to filing of an RTI, it is a very simple and easy process. As each authority covered under the RTI Act is required to appoint a Public Information Officer, i.e. PIO, who is under mandatory obligation to respond to an RTI application by a citizen seeking information within the stipulated time period of 30 days. Any person can file an RTI application. For that, he/she has to submit a written application asking for the desired information from PIO; the applicant is also required to disclose his/her name and contact details, however there is no need for that applicant to give any sort of justification or reason behind seeking that information. The ultimate authority under the RTI Act is Central Information Commission (CIC) which is a quasi judicial body, who acts upon all the complaints and issues relating to RTI, generally covering cases where the information asked has not been provided to the applicant. Also an applicant filing an RTI is required to submit a demand draft or a banker’s cheque of Rs 10/- in the name of the Accounts Officer of that concerned public authority as a fee.
Now talking about the most debatable and controversial issue when it comes to RTI which is, whether our political parties are equivalent to public authorities and come under the ambit of the RTI Act? Considering the recent landmark judgment of the full bench of CIC headed by Chief Information Commissioner, Mr. Satyanand Mishra and Information Commissioners, Mr. ML Sharma and Ms. Annapurna Dixit, the answer to the above stated question is in the affirmative. It was held that the Political Parties in India fall under the ambit of the RTI Act and there is no valid justification why they shouldn’t! At present, there are six National Political Parties in India, namely Congress, BJP, NCP, CPI, BSP and BJD. All these parties are working at a National level and they are indirectly funded by CIC, therefore they can be said to have a character of a public authority as they perform public functions. These political parties are held as public authorities under Section 2(4) of the RTI Act. In response to this decision, these political parties, with the exception of CPI, refused to consider themselves as a public authority under the ambit of RTI Act. They straightaway opposed this and refused on disclosing information to people. However, rejecting their contentions, the CIC directed these parties to comply with the obligatory provisions of disclosure of information by putting it on their respective websites. CIC further made its point clear by stating “The people of India must know the source of expenditure incurred by political parties and by the candidates in the process of elections”. Considering the aforementioned statement by CIC, it is crystal clear that political parties in India have a character of public authority and are covered within the scope of the RTI Act. Taking consideration of this matter, the Supreme court issued a notice to these political parties seeking their response to declare them as public authority. This order was passed after a PIL was filed by an NGO and RTI Activist, Mr. Subhash Aggarwal, seeking the Court’s direction to make political parties accountable under the transparency law.
Senior Advocate, Mr. Prashant Bhushan (appearing as a counsel for the petitioner) contended that these political parties are virtually funded by the State, this is clear as they are exempted from filing income tax returns, which eventually makes them liable as a public authority under the RTI Act. However, looking from a practical perspective at this situation, such directions by the CIC and the SC can only be considered as a good initiative towards broadening the transparency laws in India. As a major portion of money spent by these parties during the time of elections, allegedly comes from illegal sources, they dole out cash, distribute a large quantity of liquor and sometimes purchase or create fake votes making use of black money, to come in power. In simple words, this can be called as one of the major root causes for increment of corruption in India. They will never allow these transparency laws to take away or ruin their immunities and illegal liberties.
Corruption has taken over almost everything in our country and in view of that, bringing these political organisations under the ambit of RTI Act will definitely make them accountable towards the people of India. But there is a long way to go for that, as there will be a lot of protest and opposition by these parties. Therefore the only remedy exist is for legislature to come up with a stringent and strict law to make it possible.
“Corruption is worse than prostitution, the latter might endanger the morals of an individual, the former invariably endangers the morals of the entire nation”.