Live Mint
New Delhi
New Delhi: A decision on including political parties under the Right to Information (RTI) Act may get delayed by more than a month as the Central Information Commission (CIC), which is hearing the case, is unclear on the key issue of funding by Central and state governments.
At the heart of the argument is whether parties receive “substantial funding” from governments to warrant bringing them under the transparency law. Since CIC’s jurisdiction does not extend to states, it is unable to ascertain if land or property given to political parties by state governments amount to substantial funding.
According to a government official privy to the developments, the commission will write to the income tax (I-T) department, the directorate of estates that is responsible for administration and management of office buildings, and to political parties to get more details on the issue.
“Since CIC does not have jurisdiction over states, we are unable to ascertain what is the kind of indirect funding that the state governments have given to these political parties,” the official said, requesting anonymity. “The I-T department is being asked about the quantum of I-T exemption given to the political parties and its monetary value.”
According to the RTI Act, any non-governmental organization “substantially financed, directly or indirectly by funds” provided by any government constitutes as a public authority and has to give information sought under the Act.
The CIC is hearing an appeal filed by RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal and Anil Bairwal of New Delhi-based Association of Democratic Reforms. The petitioners are demanding that political parties be declared a public authority after they refused to divulge information they had sought under the law.
“I am not sure of what is the logic behind this (CIC seeking information from government offices) because the documents that we had submitted were from the I-T department and the directorate of estates, but it is a positive sign as CIC is not outrightly rejecting the case,” Bairwal said.
Any decision in the matter will apply only to the six national political parties that are respondents in the case—the ruling Congress, the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party, Nationalist Congress Party, Communist Party of India, and Communist Party of India (Marxist).
The Congress is the only party that did not send any representative to the two hearings by CIC in the past month.
Experts said that while greater transparency is required at the internal party level, not every information can be given to the public, owing to “competitiveness” between the political parties.
“Political parties should be transparent. The question is, however, about how you want to interpret substantial funding—whether it is substantial in terms of money or in terms of percentage,” Nikhil Dey, an RTI expert and a member of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, said. “For me, tax exemption to political parties and using public resources amount to substantial funding.”
Dey, however, said it was not practical to ask for any kind of information from parties. “You cannot say the minutes of meetings of the parties should be out because there is competitiveness between political parties,” he said.
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