MPs Baijayant Panda, Ajoy Kumar, Dinesh Trivedi & Omar Abdullah oppose RTI amendments; seek public consultation

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Money Life, September 04, 2013

Today, perhaps, political parties will move the bill to be passed in the Parliament, to invalidate the June 2013 order of the Central Information Commission, which declared six national political parties as ?public authorities? under the RTI Act. Hear some sane voices from the political fraternity

The din in the Parliament has compelled procrastination of the Bill to amend the Right to information (RTI) Act, 2005 and also to move it immediately to pass it. This would ensure that political parties are not under the ambit of the RTI Act. This bill, which was listed as item no5 for 3rd September will probably see the light of the day today.

While leading RTI activists and members of RTI organizations are fighting tooth and nail through written appeals and protests, it comes as a pleasant surprise, that, several members of Parliament (MPs) are also as disgusted with their seniors as citizens across the country. It is only fair that we take note of their stance, for the strengthening of the RTI Act and for the benefit of citizens at large. Instead of passing the bill in the Parliament they, like activists and citizens are appealing to the Lok Sabha speaker to send the bill to the Standing Committee, which will facilitate public consultation. Also, one of them, has succeeded in convincing some senior leaders of the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Baijayant Panda, is a MP from Kendrapara in Odisha from the Biju Janata Dal (BJU) and is active on the social media. His post in his Facebook account, on 29th August read: ?My amendment opposing political parties’ exclusion from RTI was not admitted in the Lok Sabha (on a technical ground). So I am filing fresh ones, including the one that says only those political parties with *no* seats in parliament or assembly should be excluded.??

On 2nd September, he posted another message on Facebook: ?The battle for RTI has been building up, and tomorrow is high noon in the Lok Sabha! Want to make a difference? NOW is the time. For the past couple of weeks, I have been working with many activists’ and citizens’.

?My initial letter to the Hon’ble Speaker to refer it to a Standing Committee (where public can also contribute suggestions) was turned down; but subsequently, all the combined efforts started yielding results, and two other MPs (Ajoy Kumar and Dinesh Trivedi) also took a stand, writing to the Speaker on the same lines.

?Today, we had the additional gratification of having Sushma Swaraj, Gurudas Dasgupta, and some other leaders also join in making the same demand. Separately, Arun Jaitley is rumoured to have told his party that this proposed amendment is unconstitutional. Even some MPs from United Progressive Alliance (UPA) are reportedly concerned. However, not all parties are on board, and it is likely that the RTI amendment will be taken up in the House tomorrow and passed. The crucial difference, why the government can be so brazen about this, is: HOW MANY OF THE MPs/PARTIES WILL ACTUALLY VOTE AGAINST THE GOVT on the floor of the house? I certainly will, and in fact will demand a division (voting) so that a record remains of who actually stood up when it mattered. I still have a hope, even if somewhat faint, that IF ENOUGH OF YOU PITCH IN NOW and contact MPs thru social media and phone, tomorrow could, just possibly, see the tables being turned…??

Ajoy Kumar, the Lok Sabha MP from Jamshedpur of Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (JVP) party, has written a letter to Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar to refer the bill to a Standing Committee. The letter states: ?The RTI Act is a fundamental citizens’ right and has empowered citizens across the country to access information and demand accountability from the government? As you may be aware, there has been widespread public agitation against the RTI amendments. There is also an apprehension among people that the whole political class is coming together to prevent transparency in the political process. Therefore, as we deliberate amendments to this landmark legislation, it is critical that we have detailed debate on it. We must provide common citizens a chance to present their views on the Amendment Bill by referring it to a Standing Committee. Ensuring public consultation on the Bill will help reduce the chasm between people and political parties and will help restore peoples? faith in parliamentary democracy.??

In addition, Panda has also written to Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, stating, ?With respect to the merit of including political parties under the ambit of RTI, I am personally of the opinion that the correct constitutional body for this should be the Election Commission, whose powers need to be enhanced to enforce political transparency, particularly with regard to funding and expenditure. This ought to be further augmented by mandatory auditing of the accounts furnished to the EC by political parties. However, until and unless these are legislated and enacted, it would be wrong to pass the proposed amendment to RTI, particularly in the face of widespread public criticism.?

Several commentators have claimed certain infirmities with political parties being covered by RTI, while others have pointed to similar provisions already passed by our House in the Lok Pal bill. However, the best way to deal with this is to refer the matter to the appropriate standing committee for detailed deliberations, followed by a thorough discussion in the House.??

According to media reports, Omar Abdullah, chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir, in his valedictory speech at the eighth convention of the Central Information Commission, stated that if political parties are availing income tax exemption, they should be accountable to the public.

According to reports, Omar stated that he does not see any problem in sharing records of day-to-day functioning of political parties with people. “At the end of the day, nobody can force us to collect information that we don’t ordinarily collect or that we don’t ordinarily use in our day-to-day operations. As a political party, if there are records that I keep about functioning of my political party, then those records should be made available to the people. And if I don’t keep those records, then I can’t be forced.??

Venkatesh Nayak, an agitated scholar-activist says, ?Unlike the past couple of weeks, this Bill was at the bottom of the agenda and could not be taken up due to delay or disruption of House proceedings; this time it has been placed high up on the list indicating the urgency with which the Government supported by most political parties wants to pass this Bill.?

Similarly, the Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs announced Friday last that the RTI (Amendment) Bill will be taken up for consideration and passing in the Rajya Sabha this week. His statement is available in the uncorrected version of the RS debates available at: http://164.100.47.5/newdebate/229/30082013/12.00NoonTo13.00pm.pdf

Lets wait and watch today, whether political parties show their true or false colours!

(Vinita Deshmukh is the consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book ?To The Last Bullet – The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart – Ashok Kamte? with Vinita Kamte and is the author of ?The Mighty Fall?.)

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