IN the mid-sixties, there was a popular play titled ‘Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf’?’ a parody of the song ‘Who’s Afraid of Big Bad Wolf?’ from Walt Disney’s The Three Little Pigs. The story revolves around two couples trying desperately to suppress certain truth which to their consternation manages to come out leading to thunder and fury. In her writing, Virginia Woolf attempts to expose the truth: all of the things that the couples try to cover up. When the couples sing the song together, they make mockery of their own fear of the truth and are attempting to project, a false image.
Do we see a parallel with the Right to Information Act (RTI), political parties and the government? Indeed, we should. As of now there are a whopping 24,302 cases related to information appeals under the RTI Act pending with the Central Information Commission (CIC). This backlog is in spite of the fact that the Commission is dodging the Act by returning a majority of appeals coming to it, citing lack of documentation, premature appeals or forwarding of cases to the relevant State Information Commissions. This is a new development in line with the central government’s policy of clamp down and centralising decision making.
And it has percolated down to the field level. Let us see one example from Kanyakumari, the southernmost district of India. A retired principal scientist sent an RTI application in May 2017 to the Project Director, National Highway Authority of India (NHAI), seeking information on the alignment of the proposed new National Highway 47 and the panchayats, villages, tanks/water bodies affected thereof.
The reply received was atrocious: “….it is supposed that the information being asked purposefully to freeze/drag the NH-47 four-laning project which is an economic important project of Government of India by creating various legal/technical issues. Also, disclosure of above information is dangerous and insecure…. Hence the information sought by you which would prejudicially affect economic interest of Government could not be disclosed under section 8 (1) (a) and 8 (1) (g) of Right to Information Act, 2005.” No wonder, since this ‘duplicate’ NH 47 costing over Rs 2,000 crore is turning out to be a huge BJP government scam!
This is the kind of replies that most RTI applicants are getting these days from the Public Information Officers (PIOs). First appeal within the department do not make much difference and the second and final appeal lies with CIC which is increasingly becoming functus officio. In 2017 alone, of the 18,518 cases registered as appeals, the CIC returned 13,796 cases to appellants citing one reason or the other. Lack of sufficient staff strength is touted as among the reasons why their backlog is increasing. In September 2016, the Department of Personnel & Training (DoPT) had advertised for the post of two Information Commissioners (ICs) due to fall vacant. While the applications were invited well before the vacancies arose, no appointments have been made till date.
Decisions for the appointment of ICs had to be made by the PMO and DoPT cannot act on its own. As per sources, 225 persons had applied for these posts and yet the government has failed to select and fill them. Two more ICs at the CIC are due for retirement soon. This trend could continue as more ICs superannuate and would not be replaced. Some amendment is also being proposed to choke things further. Is CIC heading towards asphyxia and slow death?
IT all started four years ago with the CIC’s categorical order that political parties would come under the purview of the RTI Act, since they are the ‘building blocks of a constitutional democracy’. CIC’s ruling was well reasoned on general, legal and financial grounds. Under the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution, a political party can have a Member of the House disqualified in certain circumstances; that a political party is required to be registered by the Election Commission of India (ECI) under the Representation of People Act, 1951; that under the Act, political parties are required to submit a report for each Financial Year to the ECI in respect of contributions received by it in excess of 20,000; that ECI allots symbols to various political parties; that political parties are mandated to file regular Income Tax Returns.
On the financial side, governments give several concessions to political parties like large tracts of land or accommodation in Delhi; total tax exemption for all their income; free air time during the elections and copies of electoral rolls by the ECI free of cost, at the time of elections.
Therefore, the CIC ruled thus: “In view of the above discussion, we hold that INC, BJP, CPI (M), CPI, NCP and BSP have been substantially financed by the Central Government under Section 2(h)(ii) of the RTI Act. The criticality of the role being played by these political parties in our democratic set up and the nature of duties performed by them also point towards their public character, bringing them in the ambit of section 2(h). The constitutional and legal provisions discussed also point towards their character as public authorities….”
CONSEQUENTLY, the CIC directed these political parties to designate PIOs and Appellate Authorities in a time-bound manner and respond to the RTI applications expeditiously. Parties were also directed to comply with the provisions of section 4(1) (b) of the RTI Act by way of making voluntary disclosures on the subjects mentioned in the said clause.
This set the wolf among the vultures, and the response has been fierce. All political parties ‘ganged up’ against the order. While some argued that political parties are private organizations, others said that the order will create a lot of harm and damage to democratic institutions and process! One party went to the absurd extent of saying that they could not accept the order, which was based on a misconception of the role of political parties in a parliamentary democracy and could harm the integrity and role of parties in a democratic political system!
The CIC and political parties had raised and responded contrastingly to a critical issue directly related to the people—should political parties that run the government and control all levers of power be answerable to the people who are supreme in our constitutional scheme of things? While CIC is on the side of the people, political parties are totally opposed. Yet, we lotus eaters still believe that politicians represent the people! What a travesty.
The issue basically is: Should the truth about the arbitrary, autocratic, corrupt and opaque functioning of political parties and leadership brought in the open and made accountable? A la Virginia Woolf, the CIC is for revealing the truth which the political coterie is desperately trying to suppress and cover up. When politicos mock the CIC, they were expressing their own fear of the truth and were projecting a false image.
The matter is before the Supreme Court and politicos are deadly afraid of the RTI Act. Moving away from mocking they are conspiring to kill the Act itself!
The writer is a former Army and IAS officer