RTI--politics may get more public

BY Manu Moudgil| IN Media Practice | 29/09/2012
All political parties, except the CPI have refused to provide names of their donors saying they don't come under the purview of the RTI Act.
The CIC will decide next week whether we can keep a tab on political parties through RTI, says MANU MOUDGIL Pix: adrindia.org
In a democracy which is of the people, by the people and for the people, do we have space for political parties which are not open to public scrutiny? The central information commission (CIC) will settle this issue next week while hearing three complaints, one from Anil Bairwal of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) and two from RTI user Subhas Chandra Agarwal.
The Commission had earlier issued notices to Congress, NCP (Nationalist Congress Party), BJP (Bharatiya Janat Party), BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party), CPI (M) (Communist Party of India, Marxist),  CPI (Communist Party of India)  and the Election Commission of India to present themselves through their representatives on September 26, 2012, but only the representatives of CPI and NCP were present upon which the full bench gave a week's time to the respondents to submit their written representations.
It was in October 2010, that ADR, an umbrella body of non-profits working for transparency in political and electoral system, had filed RTI applications with six national political parties asking for: “Sources of the 10 maximum voluntary contributions received by your party from financial year 2004-05 to financial year 2009-10; the modes of these donations (cheque, cash, DD, etc); amount of these donations; the financial years in which these contributions were made; and sources/names of voluntary contributors along with their addresses who have made single contributions of more than Rs 1 lakh to your party from financial year 2004-05 to financial year 2009-10.”
All political parties, except the Communist Party of India (CPI), refused to provide these details declaring they were not “public authority” under the purview of the RTI Act. and thereby were not bound to provide this information. In reply to the RTI application, CPI's general secretary A B Bardhan stated “we are a public authority under Section 2 (b)(d)(ii) “non-governmental organisation substantially financed, directly or indirectly by funds provided by the appropriate government”.” The party also has an internal appellate authority. All India Congress Committee and CPI (M) replied that they are not a ‘Public Authority’ as per the provisions of the RTI Act while BJP and BSP did not bother to respond. NCP said it didn’t have enough man-power to provide the information asked for.
The main contention of ADR is that since political parties get financed by a very large amount through tax exemption on all their income, they fall under purview of the RTI Act. “Besides the tax rebate, all the major political parties have also been provided facilities for residential and official use by Directorate of Estates (DoE) at prime locations on a token of money as rent or dues. These facilities are not just provided to them at marginal rates but their maintenance, upgradation, modernisation, renovation and construction is also done at state expense. A large amount of money is also spent by Election Commission of India on political parties for giving electoral rolls. Doordarshan and AIR also provide free broadcast facilities to the political parties. If closely seen, the money spent on that basis actually runs in crores,” says a press statement released by ADR.
Documents accessed by the ADR using RTI show that seven national parties were sponsored airtime on Doordarshan and All India Radio to the tune of Rs. 11 crore for their poll campaign during the 2009 general election. The Congress and the BJP accounted for the lion’s share of the expenditure at 50 per cent. The Congress, BJP, CPI, CPI (M), NCP and BSP have also been allotted lands at prime locations in Delhi which, even if valued by the circle rate of category “B”, are estimated to be worth Rs.508.37 crore. The BJP and the Congress share of these land allocations stands at 18,737.42 square metre and 10,410.8 square metre respectively, which are valued at Rs.254.81 crore and Rs. 241.59 crore respectively.
According to the RTI Act, “public authority” includes any--
(I) body owned, controlled or substantially financed;
(ii) non-government organisation substantially financed,
directly or indirectly by funds provided by the appropriate government;”
“The CIC, in its previous orders, has defined “substantially financed” as receiving an amount which is not trivial. The Punjab and Haryana High Court declared the Sutlej Club as public authority and brought it under the transparency law just because the club was built on a government land. The CIC declared Mount St. Mary’s School in Delhi as public authority primarily because five acre of prime land was given to the school at a subsidised rate. By that definition, political parties are also public authorities,” Anil Bairwal, the national coordinator of ADR, and co-complainant in the case.
This is not the first time that ADR has run into a wall when seeking information related to political parties under the RTI Act. In 2008, the association had asked the income tax department to make I-T returns and contribution reports of political parties public. Since it was a third party information, the I-T department sought the response of political parties all of which opposed such a move. However, the CIC directed the Income Tax authorities to make this information public as there was huge public interest in the information.
Analysis of the replies showed that the top five political parties with the highest total income between 2004-05 and 2010-11 (last seven years) are: Congress with Rs 2,008 crore followed by BJP: Rs 994 crore, BSP: Rs 484 crore, CPM: Rs 417 crore and SP: Rs 279 crore. However, between 80-90 per cent of the income of these political parties was found to be through donations from unnamed sources. According to rules, only those contributors who donate above Rs 20,000 need to be named. But figures available show that "named sources of income" form a very small percentage of total income of the parties.
For 2009-10 and 2010-11, while 81 per cent of the BJP’s funding accrued from donations, only 22.76 per cent of the total income came from named donors who had contributed over Rs. 20,000. The corresponding figures for the Congress indicate that a mere 11.89 per cent of the total income was from named donors. BSP with declared income of Rs 172 crore for the past two years had donations accounting for Rs 99 crore, all of which came from unnamed sources.
“These figures don't tell who funds the political parties. Even if these parties are declared public authorities under the RTI Act, we won't get to know about sources of donations less than Rs 20,000. But at least their functioning will be open to public scrutiny,” Bairwal says. CIC's order next week may change the way political parties are perceived and help realise the “aapki apni party” slogan we often get to hear only during elections.
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