Refer RTI Amendment Bill to Select Committee: MP

Amid growing clamour from civil society against government's move to amend RTI Act to exempt political parties, a member of Parliament has written to Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar to refer the proposed legislation to an appropriate standing committee for detailed deliberations.

The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2013, which provides for immunity to political parties from providing information under the transparency law, is scheduled to come up for discussion tomorrow in Lok Sabha.

In his letter, Baijayant Jay Panda, a Biju Janata Dal MP from Kendrapara, Odisha said the proposed legislation requires thorough discussion and should not be passed in the din.

The BJD MP said Election Commission's powers need to be enhanced to enforce political transparency, particularly with regard to funding and expenditure of parties.

"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 Election Commission, whose powers need to be enhanced to enforce political transparency, particularly with regard to funding and expenditure," he said.

"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,"

He said that the legislation requires thorough consideration and discussion, and should not be passed in the din as has become the unfortunate practice for several important bills recently.

Several commentators have claimed infirmities with political parties being covered by RTI, while others have pointed to similar provisions already passed by the House in the Lokpal bill, Panda said.

"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," said the letter written on August 17. 

A group of intellectuals, academics and representatives of civil society organisations comprising Indians residing abroad have also written to the Speaker against any move by the government to water down the RTI Act.

The RTI Act is a historic law that undermined the secrecy and unanswerability that underwrote colonial governance. The government should do all it can to preserve the RTI law, for the sake of democracy and independence, and not kill it, the letter said.

"When political parties argue that they are not 'public authorities,' they make a mockery of the basic principles of democracy. For Parliament to consider watering down the RTI bill to protect political parties deals a serious blow to post-colonial democratic governance in India....

"RTI is a powerful tool against governmental corruption and the all-too-common, random abuse of power. These are also issues that, unfortunately, get ample media attention in the West. We urge you to please stop all efforts to crush one of the most significant pieces of legislation enacted in independent India," it said.

Venkatesh Nayak, Coordinator (of Access to Information Programme) of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), said that many activists and NGOs working for the RTI Act will move court if Parliament gives nod to the proposed amendments.

The Union Cabinet had on August 1 cleared a proposal to amend the RTI Act to give immunity to political parties.

The Cabinet's decision had come nearly two months after the Central Information Commission's order of bringing six national political parties -- Congress, BJP, NCP, CPI-M, CPI and BSP -- under the RTI Act.

The government has proposed an amendment in Section 2 of the Act, which defines public authority, to shield political parties.

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