By Bhanupriya Rao:
Something very dangerous is going on. A lot of us know it already and a lot more need to know. And act.
The Right to Information Act,2005, the most powerful transparency tool in the hands of citizens is being amended in a haste. TheÂ amendmentsÂ are being brought in by the Government to exempt political parties from the purview of the Act. This is the Government’s response, an uncharacteristically quick one, to the CIC’s order in June 2013, that ruled that political parties are public bodies as they perform an important public function and also receive massive amounts of Government funding in the form of tax exemptions, real estate as well as airtime.
So, how does the Government react to this ruling? By bringing about amendmentsÂ to be passed in the parliament that exempts political parties from it. And guess who is collaborating with the government on ensuring the bill sails through easily? Why, all the political parties (barring a couple), of course!
Apart from the shrinking of the powerful RTI Act, which has been considered the second best in the world, the entire amendment process sets a very dangerous precedent of parties ganging up to overturn the ruling of a quasi-judicial body like the CIC to protect their own interests and themselves from public scrutiny. What next? We hear that they are all set to overturn the Supreme Court ruling on disqualification of criminal MPs by amending the Representation of People’s Act. So, they have a slew of bills lined up that makes this dangerous precedent a routine practice.
Political parties as Public Bodies: Now they are, now they are not
Parties have gone on ad-nauseum about political parties only being a voluntary ‘associations of persons’ and have included this in the amendment bill. All the parties have been afflicted by collective amnesia as it was the same Lok Sabha that passed the Lok Pal and Lok Ayukta Bill(LLB) in 2011, which covered officers of all ‘association of persons’ that are significantly funded by the governmentÂ as public servants who could be probed and prosecuted under the Act. So, in essence, as per the inexplicable logic of the political parties, they are public bodies under the Lok Pal Bill but not under the RTI Act.
When I spoke to Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, one of the few MPs who has actually taken a public stand against the amendments on this logic he roared ‘There can be body more public than the political parties. How can they escape the RTI Act.’
Political parties have been arguing that they are already submitting their accounts to the Election Commission. The truth is these accounts are not always complete and the EC has no power yet to audit them. If they are already transparent, as they claim to be, then why not willingly come under the RTI Act? What do they have to hide? A great deal, going by the urgency with which they are bringing these amendments when they have binned all other bills like Lok Pal, Women’s reservation bill among others.
When all of them Stonewall, a very few stand tall
Over the last couple of weeks, since we heard of the amendments being cleared by the cabinet, a lot of us have been calling our MPs as part of theÂ RTI Call-a-thonÂ to ask them their opinion on the amendments and also request them to vote against it.
We have been stonewalled from a majority of quarters. Until, one lone MP decided to come out and take a strong public stand against the amendments. Jay Panda, the BJD MP from Kendrapara, was a breath of fresh air, who tweeted , not just on his own stand but also tried to rally around fellow politiciansÂ like Shashi Tharoor, Narendra Modi andÂ Ajay Maken to respect public sentiment and galvanise within their own parties. He has sinceÂ writtenÂ aÂ letterÂ to the speaker of the Lok Sabha to refer the Bill to a standing committee to facilitate wider public consultation around it. We, as citizens have been working very closely with his office to lend support from outside to galvanise public opinion and give strength to his crusade from inside the parliament.
Raghuvansh Prasad Singh is that rare breed of politicians who has managed to defy his party leadership and take independent stand on issues. He has come out strongly against these amendments and has aid he is willing to stand up to his party and his leader Lalu Prasad Yadav if need be.Â He asserted that political parties should proactively disclose their funding and other details instead of closing ranks to scutlle an Act that is so empowering. ‘I feel ashamed to be part of this fraternity that chooses to ignore citizen’s concerns’.
It has been an empowering exercise both engaging with the MPs. Although frustrating at most times, it has served us well and taught us some very important lessons primary among them being that such engagement should not be a one-off exercise but a constant and sustainable process. We, as citizens, cannot lay blame squarely on their shoulders if we are not willing to engage. Democracy is an everyday exercise, not one that happens once in five years. The more we ask, the more we get. The more we get, the more we can ask for.
What can we do to #saveRTI?
Proceduraly, the only person who can now act is the Speaker of Lok Sabha, who has the power to refer the bill to the standing committee. So unless masses of people make a noise from outside, it is very likely that she will be drownedÂ by the voices of our MPs who are singing in unison. Please sign thisÂ petitionÂ asking her to stall the vote and urge others to do so.
Engage with your MP. Call them, tell them about Mr. Jay Panda’s and Mr.RP Singh’s stand and ask them to do the right thing an speak their minds up within the party. Find their numbers hereÂ http://getrti.org/campaigns/
Join us for aÂ hangoutÂ with Jay Panda, Anjali Bharadwaj and Venkatesh Nayak on 23rdÂ August, 5 PM, IST.
Together, we must defend our Right to Know. For if we don’t, no one else will!
Guest post by Bhanupriya Rao: Bhanupriya is an active Open Data and RTI campaigner. She is based in London and is the regional co-ordinator Asia at Open Data Barometer.