SIC must bring them under RTI ambit

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat
After Jammu & Kashmir state came under Governors rule few months back , the Government institutions, semi Government organisations , autonomous bodies have started to act and operate independently. I cannot say they are fully transparent and answerable to people, but to a great extent people see a change in the style of governance. As an RTI campaigner I can observe public authorities are responding positively to people. The autonomous institutions of state which should have been very much independent and free from political interference were not able to deliver justice. J&K State Information Commission (SIC) which has been constituted under the provisions of J&K RTI Act 2009, has taken some bold decisions during last 2 months. They are now able to exercise their powers without any pulls and pressures. Several arrogant Government Officers have been punished and penalized for violating RTI Act. More than 4 years have elapsed when State Information Commission (SIC) headed by the then Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) G R Sufi issued notices to several political parties of J&K that included Congress , Panthers Party , BJP ,Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and National Conference asking them to clear their stand as to why they shouldn’t be brought under the purview  of J&K RTI Act 2009 ?  The notices were issued after some RTI activists from state had filed a complaint before the commission against the political parties denying to share information under RTI law.
RTI activists had filed written applications and sough details about the donations received by Congress , BJP , National Conference (NC), Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) & Panthers Party.  PDP was the only political party which had responded to the RTI query and others remained tight lipped over the issue.
After getting no response from most of the political parties, the aggrieved activists sought intervention of State Information Commission (SIC) . The Commission sought the counter reply from NC, Congress, Panthers Party and BJP in 2014, but until previous State Information Commission completed its term the matter was not decided at all. The SIC was again reconstituted last year but the matter has not been decided till date.
Background of the case
The Central Information Commission (CIC) on June 3rd 2013 had declared many national political parties as “Public Authorities” which brings such organisations under the purview of Right to Information law . A Full Bench of the Central Information Commission headed by the then Chief Information Commissioner  Mr Satyananda Mishra held six parties — BJP, Congress , CPI(M), CPI, NCP and BSP – against  whom RTI queries were directed, fulfill the criteria of being public authorities under the Central Right to Information Act of 2005.  Considered to be one the landmark judgments, the Central Information Commission (CIC) had ruled that political parties come within the ambit of the Right to Information Act. As the CIC’s order had created ripples among political parties including Congress and BJP , on 12th  August 2013 the Congress Party tabled RTI Amendment Bill 2013 in Lok Sabha to keep political parties out of RTI ambit. On September 3rd 2013 bill was deferred to the winter session of Parliament. On December 17, 2013 the Rajya Sabha Standing Committee on Law and Personnel tabled its report in the Parliament. The committee considered the proposed amendment as a right step to address the issue once and for all. The committee, therefore, recommended for passing of the Bill. With this observation the CIC’s order got scuttled as the amendment would apply retrospectively i.e., from June 3rd 2013 , the date on which the CIC had issued the judgment declaring political parties as Public Authorities and bringing them under the provisions of the RTI law.
In April 2017 matter again came up for hearing at Central Information Commission New Delhi . Chief information Commissioner Mr R.K. Mathur directed to keep “in abeyance” the matter pertaining to political parties not adhering to the Right to Information Act, thus putting the controversial issue in cold storage. Mr Mathur’s direction to keep the hearing in abeyance comes inspite of a 2014 order of the Delhi high court to the commission to decide within six months the complaint filed by RTI Activist Mr R K Jain. The activist alleged that the parties were not replying to their RTI pleas and have not put in place any infrastructure mandated under the RTI Act.
Omar Abdullah at CIC convention
As Central RTI Act 2005 is not applicable to J&K, CIC Mr R K Mathur’s judgment becomes null and void when it comes to its implementation in Jammu & Kashmir. Our state comes under the purview of Jammu & Kashmir RTI Act 2009 and State Information Commission (SIC) is bound to decide the case on merits.  In his valedictory speech at the 8th convention of the Central Information Commission on 3rd September 2013, the then Chief Minister  Omar Abdullah said he was not sure whether his party (NC) would agree with his views but if political parties are availing Income Tax exemption, they should be accountable to the people under RTI Act.
“As of now, my party is not on that list of parties that have to be part of the Right to Information and I don’t know whether my party will agree with what I have to say. But if I they did ask me what I thought, I would believe it is justifiable for my party to come under the purview of the Right to Information,” said Omar Abdullah during his address at CICs 2013 convention
During his speech Omar Abdullah stressed that he did not wish to pick a fight with other political parties, Omar said he does not see any problem in sharing records of day-to-day functioning of political parties with people. Former Chief Minister knew his party would not agree with him on bringing NC under the ambit of RTI Act. After a year or so when an RTI application was filed by some Jammu based activists in National Conference office , the party denied to share information. Some other parties like Congress , BJP and Panthers Party  also denied the information under RTI. When the case landed in State Information Commission (SIC) , National Conference hired several legal experts to defend its case. They pleaded not to be made accountable under RTI law
Conclusion :
Keeping a case pending for 4 long years and not at all listing it, damages the credibility of our State Information Commission (SIC). Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) which was in power under few months back had not shown any reluctance while giving reply to an RTI applicant several years back while they were in opposition. I hope they will not agitate if SIC brings them under RTI purview and asks them to designate a Public Information Officer ?  Similarly National Conference , Congress , BJP , Panthers Party too should not have any reservations as all of them have been provided Government accommodation for establishing their offices. Political parties in India are governed by The Representation of the People Act, 1951 (RPA). RPA also allows political parties to receive voluntary contributions from anyone including corporates (but not Government company) and excluding contributions from foreign sources such as from citizens of foreign country, foreign company, foreign corporation, foreign trust etc. Corporate donors are eligible to claim exemption on its donation to political parties under Section 80GGB and any other person (except local authority and every artificial juridical person wholly or partly funded by the Government) can claim exemption under Section 80GGC, unless such contribution is made by way of other than cash. Availing Government concession makes these political parties accountable and answerable to tax payers of the state ? I have written on this issue several times. I am once again trying to mobilize public opinion as Governors rule is the best time to address such volatile issues.  I believe this is the right time for State Information Commission (SIC) to take a bold decision.