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Government defends move to amend RTI Act, activists furious
Friday August 2, 2013 10:51 PM, IANS

The government Friday defended its decision to amend the RTI Act to keep political parties out of its ambit, saying they would not be able to function if the CIC order was implemented. The step however drew criticism from activists, who contended it would result in an erosion of transparency and accountability.

Law Minister Kapil Sibal said the government respected the Central Information Commission (CIC), but was concerned by its order. He said that political parties were not companies or trusts, but a "voluntary association of persons".

The union cabinet Thursday approved two amendments to the RTI Act, one aiming at keeping political parties out of its ambit and the second stating that the CIC order was not binding on any political party.

Government sources said the change in the RTI Act would be made in the monsoon session starting Aug 5.

The issue has been in the news after the CIC in a June 3 order said that six national political parties would be brought under the RTI Act as they were public authorities, receiving significant funding from the government.

Sibal said the CIC order "will strike at the root of the political system. People will seek all sorts of details from political parties including their process of consultation and decision-making. Nowhere in the world does this happen".

"The political parties are unanimous against the CIC order. Parties will not be able to function if this is allowed," he added.

According to the law minister, two options were available to the government -- filing a writ petition in the high court against the CIC order, a time-consuming process; and second, amending the RTI Act, which could be done quickly.

"The hurry is because the CIC order is operational. We want a quick resolution of this issue," said Sibal.

The law minister gave a long list of points to indicate that political parties "did not function under a veil of secrecy" and were accountable.

"There seems to be an impression that political parties are not accountable. We get elected by the people. We have to reveal whatever donations we receive to the Election Commission. It is not as if donations to parties are unaccounted for," said Sibal.

Donations received by political parties beyond Rs.20,000 have to be declared to the income tax department, the minister pointed out.

"This can also be made public. It is not as if the political parties operate under a veil of secrecy," he said.

"We give an account of assets and liabilities to the Election Commission and also give an account of our expenses, there is transparency. Political parties are not companies or trusts. It's a voluntary association of persons," he said.

Sibal said parties already make declarations to the Election Commission. "We make declarations to the income tax department, and the IT department can make it public if it so thinks," he said.

The minister went on to say that political parties are not appointed.

"We go to the people through an election process. We get elected, unlike government servants and people in a trust. There is a basic difference," he said.

However, activists have slammed the move.

"The government has used sheer brute power to nullify the CIC order. They have again failed to live up to the transparency and accountability that they promise in every election manifesto," Venkastesh Nayak of the Commonwealth Humans Rights Initiative (CHRI) told IANS.

"It is a poor decision, taken in bad taste. It is certainly an erosion of democracy. They should have had the basic courtesy to at least hold a dialogue with the public, as it is a decision on the citizen's fundamental rights," RTI activist Shailesh Gandhi told IANS.

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