Adamant until the last few days to quickly pass the RTI Amendment Bill in Lok Sabha, on Wednesday, political parties instead decided to send it to the Parliamentary Standing Committee for further discussion and public consultation
Hurrah to activists, citizens, the print, electronic and social media across the country, who by constantly hammering through petitions, protests, articles, tweets and Facebook postings, were able to disable the might of the political parties united-ly determined to slip out of the Right to Information (RTI) Act. It almost seemed as if the voices of several young Parliamentarians, urging their senior leaders to be receptive to the sane voices of RTI activists and citizens, were to vanish in thin air.
However, on 5th September, which is celebrated as Teacher’s Day, citizens taught a lesson to Parliamentarians in participative and pro-active democracy. The political class relented. Instead of passing the RTI Amendment Bill, which would have, very smoothly, put the political parties out of the RTI ambit, V Narayanaswamy, minister of state for personnel, who had introduced the bill for discussion in the Lok Sabha, said that the government has decided to refer the RTI [Amendment] Bill, 2013, to the standing committee of Parliament. He said that the Central Information Commission (CIC) decision of 3rd July, which had ordered that political parties are public authorities, needs elaborate study.
This is the first step of citizen victory though it does not mean that the Standing Committee’s report will be pro-citizen. This means that the Amendment Bill will be open to discussions and scrutiny not only by the political class but by the citizenry as well.
Noted RTI activist Maj Gen SCN Jatar (retd) states sceptically, “I hope the referral to the Standing Committee is not just a delaying tactic. I hope the Committee rejects the amendment. Even if it does, the government is not bound to accept the Standing Committee recommendations. This is clear from the affidavit of the government in the matter of UID where the Committee did not recommend UID (Aadhaar), in fact, strongly opposed it. However, the government has gone ahead with it. What is the objective that we are aiming at and how feasible is it?’’
Former Central Information Commissioner and RTI activist, Shailesh Gandhi, though, is optimistic and states, “…But for today let us celebrate the success of democracy. This is the way to go. Citizens and politicians engaging in discussions and the politicians showing they are sensitive to our voices. Can there be a better proof that democracy works? A victory for RTI and democracy?”
Gandhi further states, “The referral of the RTI amendment to the Standing Committee is a great step for democracy. When political parties first spoke about getting an ordinance to amend the Act, many citizens across the country protested and the media drew attention to the issue. The political class then said they would bring a Bill in Parliament. Petitions, emails letters and ballots were used to counter this. Citizens called up MPs on phone and in person. Social media was used very actively. Meetings and protests were held at various places. Citizens used reason to persuade.”
However, Gandhi cautions that the citizens will have to continue their effort of engaging with the political class.
Leading the campaign were Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey and Shailesh Gandhi, who inspired activists across the country to make visible protests, sign online petitions and make use of the social media.
Venkatesh Nayak, through his scholarly approach, did a study on 40 countries, including small nations around us—Nepal and Bhutan—where political parties are public authorities and citizens have right to access their finances. The press release issued by Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), of which Nayak is in-charge of Information Access programme, states, “CHRI thanks the 20,500+ signatories who endorsed the online petition to the Speaker of the Lok Sabha demanding that the RTI (Amendment) Bill be referred to a Parliamentary Standing Committee for widespread public consultation. This petition was jointly sponsored by CHRI, the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI), Satark Nagrik Sangathan, RTI Calla—a—Thon volunteers and academics of Indian origin based abroad. Change.org facilitated this petition.’’
Explaining the module of the campaign, the release says, “CHRI contributed to this campaign in three ways. First, we floated in the public domain crucial strands of thought that wove the public argument demanding greater public consultation on the amendment proposal by linking it to the issues of constitutionality and contradictions with principles already approved in other accountability—related legislation pending in Parliament. Second, we disseminated our findings about international best practices regarding transparency in the organisation, working and finances of political parties to show that openness does not adversely affect their fortunes. Third, we collaborated with other advocators to mobilise public opinion through online petitions to demand the opening up of an opportunity for people and civil society to voice their views on the amendment proposal.”
“The tide began to turn in favour of the advocacy campaign with individual members of Parliament belonging to opposition parties and the ruling coalition publicly expressing misgivings about the Government's attempts to rush the amendments through Parliament. Concerns were also expressed about the constitutionality of the proposed amendments. The efforts of these progressive MPs appears to have influenced a change of thinking in the minds of their party leaders resulting in critical pressure being exerted on the Government to accept the option of public consultation instead of a hasty vote on the Bill,’’ said the release.
Here is the RTI (Amendment) Bill sent to Parliamentary Standing Committee
(Vinita Deshmukh is the consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)
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