CIC Concedes Defeat in Political Parties Case

17 March 2015

India’s Central Information Commission on March 16 said it can’t enforce its 2013 order that the six major political parties are subject to the Right to Information Act.

A three commissioner panel concluded the CIC could not impose penalties or compensatory damages on the parties, or otherwise compel compliance with a decision it defended as still valid.

The latest ruling says the commission is “bereft” of legal authority to act further. Instead, the Commission asked Department of Personnel and Training, which supervises the RTI Act’s administration, to study the matter.

The three commissioners, all candidates to fill the vacant CIC chairmanship, ruled in a case brought by RTI activist Subhash Agrawal and the Association of Democratic Reforms.

In June 2013, the Commission said that the political parties received public benefits and so qualify as public authorities covered by the RTI Act. Since then the parties refused to comply, sought legislation to reverse the ruling (which stalled) and largely boycotted the Commission hearings on non-compliance.

“This episode makes a mockery of the principle of the `rule of law’ which underpins our constitutional framework of governance,” commented Venkatesh Nayak, Coordinator of the Access to Information Programme at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.

“The members of the full bench of the CIC, on the other hand, have simply abdicated their responsibility by feigning fatigue,” Nayak said, urging public protests against the decision.

Petitioners in the case had urged the imposition of penalties against the parties, to the tune of five percent of their income, about $7 million. They also urged the discontinuation of all subsidies extended to the parties, such as land allotments, free air-time on official media, government accommodations, and tax exemptions. (See previous report.)

Nayak noted, “The CIC refused to even make a recommendation to the authorities to withdraw the privileges and facilities provided to these political parties at the taxpayers’ expense.”

Commission `Bereft’

“Not only is the order legally correct, it is convincing from the standpoint of the aims and objectives espoused by the RTI Act with reference to transparency, accountability and access to information,” the commissioners wrote, pointing out that the parties did not challenge it in court.

In deciding against seeking statutory penalties, the Commission decided that a penalty could only be imposed on a Central Public Information Officer (CPIO). Because the parties refused to appoint CPIOs, as ordered, the Commission said it could not impose penalties.

The Commission also concluded there was a case for awarding some compensation, but that it was barred from doing so by a 2013 court decision. Other means to enforce the order it still considers valid are not available, the decision states.

Lamenting its lack of power, the Commission wrote:

The Commission is not geared to handling situations such as the present instance where the respondents have disengaged from the process. The Commission, having declared the respondents to be public authorities, is unable to get them to function so. This unusual case of willful noncompliance highlights the need to identify the legal gaps and lacunae in the implementation mechanism. An obvious conclusion is that in cases such as this, the Commission is bereft of the tools to get its orders complied with.

 “The CIC is not a court, but a quasi-judicial body. It is expected to follow not the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law. Following this, the Act clearly gives it the power to award penalty and compensation,” Jagdeep Chhokar, co-founder of ADR, told The Hindu. “I am sorry to say that it is abdicating its responsbility,” Mr. Chhokar added.

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