The Manmohan Singh government on Monday introduced the Right to Information (Amendment Bill), 2013 in the Lok Sabha overriding outrage and protests by ordinary users of the law as well as information activists, many of whom inundated the Speaker’s office with appeals and applications urging Meira Kumar to refer the Bill to a select committee.
The RTI Act was among a slew of rights-based legislation put in place by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in its first term. Of the package, the RTI law was the most successful, gaining in momentum faster and wider than anyone expected. Not only empowering the ordinary citizen, it became the means to unearth scams and scandals of those in power. The biggest hit was taken by the very government that created the law. However, thanks to the huge public interest in the preservation of the RTI Act in its original form, the government, despite trying many times over, was unable to push through amendments aimed at curtailing the scope of the law and restricting the flow of official information.
The status quo changed on June 3, 2013 with the order of the Central Information Commission (CIC) deeming India’s six national political parties to be “pubic authorities” under the RTI Act. The landmark judgment noted: “We have no hesitation in concluding that the INC/AICC, the BJP, the CPI(M), the CPI, the NCP and the BSP have been substantially financed by the Central government and therefore, are held to be public authorities under Section 2(h) of the RTI Act.” The order meant that parties, like the government, would now be held to account, and would be especially under compulsion to reveal their sources of funding.
There were some genuine concerns about the decision impacting the functioning of parties. A major worry was that though the purpose of the order was to enforce financial transparency, in effect it would force parties to disclose their internal strategic decisions. The problem could have been dealt with by devising a way to safeguard the internal autonomy of the political parties. Instead, the parties banded together to keep themselves entirely out of the purview of the RTI Act.
The Bill tabled in the Lok Sabha proposes an amendment to Section 2 of the RTI Act which clarifies that parties would not be treated as public authorities: “Authority or body or institution of self-government established or constituted by any law made by Parliament shall not include any association or body of individuals registered or recognised as a political party under the Representation of the People Act, 1951.”
The Bill also inserts a new Section 31 in the principal Act which says that the amendment will apply “notwithstanding anything contained in any judgment, decree or order of any court or commission..,” and will prevail over “any other law for the time being in force.”