Indian RTI Supporters Object to Planned Amendments

24 July 2013

A group of eminent citizens has objected to plans by the six major political parties to pass legislation exempting themselves from the Right to Information Act.

A joint letter noted that the parties have not gone to court to challenge the June order of the Central Information Commission, but instead are making plans for a legislative fix in August when parliament resumes, according to news reports.

The appeal came from persons including: former Delhi High Court Chief Justice A P Shah, former Cabinet Sercetary TSR Subramanian, former CIC Shailesh Gandhi, RTI activist Venkatesh Nayak, and others.

“The CIC order can be challenged in a writ in the High Court, and there are many instances of these orders having been quashed in Courts. None of the political parties has filed for a stay of this order, and now expect to amend the law in Parliament to justify and legitimize their defiance of a statutory order,” the letter said.

Pointing to advantages of RTI coverage, the letter says:

 It is true that there is a trust deficit between citizens and political leaders. RTI will overcome this, and lead to a better understanding of the working of various political parties. It will lead to citizens making a more informed choice of political parties during elections. Besides, it will promote better and systematic functioning of the political parties, once they subject themselves to monitoring by the people they seek to serve. I am sure you are concerned with the decline in the levels of probity in public service. This is an opportunity to reverse this and start the journey towards a more meaningful service of people.

Here is the text of the open letter:

My Dear Member of Parliament,

I am writing this piece to you to voice my concern about a matter which is very important to me. There are reports in the media, that a bill is likely to be presented in Parliament to amend the RTI Act.

The reasons being given publicly are that the CIC order declaring political parties as Public authorities, subject to RTI is bad in law. My understanding is that if an order which is bad in law is issued by any statutory authority, the correct process is to challenge it at an appropriate forum.

The CIC order can be challenged in a writ in the High Court, and there are many instances of these orders having been quashed in Courts. None of the political parties has filed for a stay of this order, and now expect to amend the law in Parliament to justify and legitimize their defiance of a statutory order.

With folded hands I plead with you not to vote for this. Parliament makes the law. Once it is made, it has to be adjudicated by the appropriate statutory authorities. This is the Constitutional process. Defying a statutory order by anyone sets a wrong example, and leads to breakdown of the rule of law. After considerable discussion spread over months, and reference to a Parliamentary Committee this law was passed. It has been rated as the second best law in the World. Citizens cherish and value it immensely, since it codifies a very important fundamental right of ours.

The law has been used fairly extensively and has uncovered certain arbitrariness and corruption. More importantly, it has empowered the individual sovereign citizen, who is today getting greater respect from many entities.

The key principle in defining the bodies to be covered by the RTI Act was based on the movement’s slogan, “ Hamara Paisa, Hamra Hisab.” Hence all Government bodies were covered by the RTI Act and also other Institutions which may be ‘substantially funded’ by Government were covered. This was the Act passed by Parliament, based on which the CIC has passed an order.

I do concede that there is some reasonable scope for a different opinion on what constitutes ‘substantial funding’ and if the political parties feel that the CIC decision is flawed, they could challenge it in Court. Parties have said that they are being monitored by the Election Commission and the Income Tax department, and hence they need not provide information to Citizens. All Institutions including Parliament are legitimized to be intermediaries on behalf of ‘We the People’. None of these can replace the people of India.

Some worries have been voiced about how the political parties will be able to cope with the RTI queries. I might point out that many small NGOs and aided schools are complying with RTI without a major stress.

Subjecting themselves to Right to Information by citizens has not damaged any institution in the Country.Some political representatives have claimed that they would not like to be questioned about their processes of decision making. RTI only gives access to citizens to the records of a Public authority, and does not entitle the citizen to question the merits of the decisions.

Besides there are ten exemptions in Section 8 (1) for information which need not be disclosed and these exemptions passed by Parliament have worked well, and not resulted in damaging any Institution since 2005. There is some recognition in most quarters that it is slowly leading to getting some corrections and improvements in Institutions and strengthening the hands of those who work in the spirit of Public service and probity.

It is true that there is a trust deficit between citizens and political leaders. RTI will overcome this, and lead to a better understanding of the working of various political parties. It will lead to citizens making a more informed choice of political parties during elections. Besides, it will promote better and systematic functioning of the political parties, once they subject themselves to monitoring by the people they seek to serve.

I am sure you are concerned with the decline in the levels of probity in public service. This is an opportunity to reverse this and start the journey towards a more meaningful service of people. I am sure you are as concerned with the future of politics and your party in a decade from now, as I am.

Let us work together for a better political democracy with a long term vision for a better India. Please do not vote for any amendments to the RTI Act.If your party is not going to vote for amendments to the RTI Act, please state this publicly.

Your Voters,

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