Times of India
Ashish Tripathi

LUCKNOW: The Central Information Commission (CIC) will hear the complaint lodged by the the by the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) that major political parties in the country are not giving information of the donations received by them under the Right to Information (RTI) on September 26, 2102. Significantly, the hearing is being held after one-and-half-year of filing complaint. The ADR had earlier exposed that despite economic slowdown and high inflation, the income of almost all the major political parties increased considerably through donations made by 'undisclosed sources' in past five years.

The ADR, an umbrella organisation of civil society members working for transparency and accountability in democracy, had filed the applications under the RTI with all the major political parties in India in 2011 seeking information on source and method of receiving donations to run their organisation. In response, all political parties barring the Communist Party of India (CPI) declined to give the information. While CPI provided the information about their largest donors, their addresses, the mode of payment of these donations etc, other parties either didn't reply or simply said that they did not come under RTI.

In a letter signed by their then general secretary AB Bardhan, CPI said that it is a 'Public Authority' as the organization is substantially financed directly or indirectly by government funds. It also said that they have an internal appellate authority in case we were not satisfied by the information received.

However, the Congress returned the RTI letter along with the postal order. In the letter signed by Motilal Vohra, it said that party is returning the letter and postal order because it does not come under the RTI. The Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) did not respond to the application.

Interestingly, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) replied but said that it didn't have enough man-power to provide the information. The Communist Party of India Marxist (CPIM) also returned the RTI application along with the postal order. Through a letter singed by Hari Singh Kang, member of the central secretariat of the party said that CPI(M) is not a public authority as per the provisions of RTI Act and hence under no obligation to provide the information. On the basis of these replies, the ADR had filed a complaint with the CIC in March 2011. It has now come for hearing along with another complaint.

The ADR said in a statement released on Saturday that leaders of all political parties publicly maintain that they are committed to transparency and probity in the functioning. However when it comes to the implementation, their behavior is completely opposite. These replies bring to the fore the biggest farce that our democracy is plagued with - the opaque functioning of political parties with no space for engagement with the citizens and no willingness to open themselves to the public scrutiny. It is common knowledge that the political parties also get lot of benefits and facilities from various government departments.

The ADR had earlier won the case in which political parties were asked to make their Income Tax (IT) returns and contribution reports available in the public domain. Even at that time all political parties had opposed to part with this information. The CIC had then, however, directed the IT authorities to make the information public as it invilves public interest. Now the CIC will hear the ADR application on whether the political parties come under the RTI on September 26. The CIC has also now also admitted that the matter is serious and of wider implications. The case is thus going to be placed before full bench.

The political parties get tax exemption on all their income. In addition, theys have been also provided facilities for residential and official use by directorate of estates. They have been given offices and accommodations at prime locations like Akbar road, Raisina road and Chanakyapuri in Delhi and are charged only a token of money as rent. The maintenance, upgrading, modernization, renovation and construction of these accommodations are also carried out at state expense. Besides, political parties also get benefit of various services provided by the Election Commission of India, Doordarshan and All India Radio.

A study conducted by the ADR recently had revealed that the major source of the income of political parties in India is through donations and voluntary contributions. However, majority donations comes from undisclosed contributors. Further, the report said that the top five parties with the highest total income between financial year (FY) 2004-05 and FY 2010-11 (last 7 years) are the Congress with Rs 2008 crore followed by Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) with Rs 994 crore, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) - Rs 484 crore, Communist Party Marxist (CPM) - Rs 417 crore and Samajwadi Party (SP) - Rs 279 crore.

Between 80-90% of the income of these political parties is through donations from unnamed sources. According to rules, it is mandatory for the political parties to provide names of the contributors who donate above Rs 20,000. But figures available show that ""named sources of income"" form a very small percentage of total income of the parties. For FY 2009-2010 and FY 2010-2011, BJP's donations from named donors amounted to 22.76% of the total income. The congress has shown a mere 11.89% of their income from named contributions, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) -- 4.64% and CPM - 1.29%.

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