MPs Baijayant Panda, Ajoy Kumar, Dinesh Trivedi & Omar Abdullah oppose RTI amendments; seek public consultation

Today, perhaps, political parties will move the bill to be passed in the Parliament, to invalidate the June 2013 order of the Central Information Commission, which declared six national political parties as ‘public authorities’ under the RTI Act. Hear some sane voices from the political fraternity

The din in the Parliament has compelled procrastination of the Bill to amend the Right to information (RTI) Act, 2005 and also to move it immediately to pass it. This would ensure that political parties are not under the ambit of the RTI Act. This bill, which was listed as item no5 for 3rd September will probably see the light of the day today.

 

While leading RTI activists and members of RTI organizations are fighting tooth and nail through written appeals and protests, it comes as a pleasant surprise, that, several members of Parliament (MPs) are also as disgusted with their seniors as citizens across the country.  It is only fair that we take note of their stance, for the strengthening of the RTI Act and for the benefit of citizens at large. Instead of passing the bill in the Parliament they, like activists and citizens are appealing to the Lok Sabha speaker to send the bill to the Standing Committee, which will facilitate public consultation. Also, one of them, has succeeded in convincing some senior leaders of the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

 

Baijayant Panda, is a MP from Kendrapara in Odisha from the Biju Janata Dal (BJU) and is active on the social media. His post in his Facebook account, on 29th August read: “My amendment opposing political parties' exclusion from RTI was not admitted in the Lok Sabha (on a technical ground). So I am filing fresh ones, including the one that says only those political parties with *no* seats in parliament or assembly should be excluded.’’

 

On 2nd September, he posted another message on Facebook: “The battle for RTI has been building up, and tomorrow is high noon in the Lok Sabha! Want to make a difference? NOW is the time. For the past couple of weeks, I have been working with many activists' and citizens'.

 

“My initial letter to the Hon'ble Speaker to refer it to a Standing Committee (where public can also contribute suggestions) was turned down; but subsequently, all the combined efforts started yielding results, and two other MPs (Ajoy Kumar and Dinesh Trivedi) also took a stand, writing to the Speaker on the same lines.

 

“Today, we had the additional gratification of having Sushma Swaraj, Gurudas Dasgupta, and some other leaders also join in making the same demand. Separately, Arun Jaitley is rumoured to have told his party that this proposed amendment is unconstitutional. Even some MPs from United Progressive Alliance (UPA) are reportedly concerned. However, not all parties are on board, and it is likely that the RTI amendment will be taken up in the House tomorrow and passed. The crucial difference, why the government can be so brazen about this, is: HOW MANY OF THE MPs/PARTIES WILL ACTUALLY VOTE AGAINST THE GOVT on the floor of the house? I certainly will, and in fact will demand a division (voting) so that a record remains of who actually stood up when it mattered. I still have a hope, even if somewhat faint, that IF ENOUGH OF YOU PITCH IN NOW and contact MPs thru social media and phone, tomorrow could, just possibly, see the tables being turned...’’

 

Ajoy Kumar, the Lok Sabha MP from Jamshedpur of Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (JVP) party, has written a letter to Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar to refer the bill to a Standing Committee. The letter states: “The RTI Act is a fundamental citizens' right and has empowered citizens across the country to access information and demand accountability from the government… As you may be aware, there has been widespread public agitation against the RTI amendments. There is also an apprehension among people that the whole political class is coming together to prevent transparency in the political process.  Therefore, as we deliberate amendments to this landmark legislation, it is critical that we have detailed debate on it. We must provide common citizens a chance to present their views on the Amendment Bill by referring it to a Standing Committee. Ensuring public consultation on the Bill will help reduce the chasm between people and political parties and will help restore peoples’ faith in parliamentary democracy.’’

 

In addition, Panda has also written to Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, stating, “With respect to the merit of including political parties under the ambit of RTI, I am personally of the opinion that the correct constitutional body for this should be the Election Commission, whose powers need to be enhanced to enforce political transparency, particularly with regard to funding and expenditure. This ought to be further augmented by mandatory auditing of the accounts furnished to the EC by political parties. However, until and unless these are legislated and enacted, it would be wrong to pass the proposed amendment to RTI, particularly in the face of widespread public criticism.”

 

“Several commentators have claimed certain infirmities with political parties being covered by RTI, while others have pointed to similar provisions already passed by our House in the Lok Pal bill. However, the best way to deal with this is to refer the matter to the appropriate standing committee for detailed deliberations, followed by a thorough discussion in the House.’’

 

According to media reports, Omar Abdullah, chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir, in his valedictory speech at the eighth convention of the Central Information Commission, stated that if political parties are availing income tax exemption, they should be accountable to the public.

 

According to reports, Omar stated that he does not see any problem in sharing records of day-to-day functioning of political parties with people. "At the end of the day, nobody can force us to collect information that we don't ordinarily collect or that we don't ordinarily use in our day-to-day operations. As a political party, if there are records that I keep about functioning of my political party, then those records should be made available to the people. And if I don't keep those records, then I can't be forced.’’ 

 

Venkatesh Nayak, an agitated scholar-activist says, “Unlike the past couple of weeks, this Bill was at the bottom of the agenda and could not be taken up due to delay or disruption of House proceedings; this time it has been placed high up on the list indicating the urgency with which the Government supported by most political parties wants to pass this Bill.”

 

Similarly, the Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs announced Friday last that the RTI (Amendment) Bill will be taken up for consideration and passing in the Rajya Sabha this week. His statement is available in the uncorrected version of the RS debates available at: http://164.100.47.5/newdebate/229/30082013/12.00NoonTo13.00pm.pdf

 

Lets wait and watch today, whether political parties show their true or false colours!

 

(Tomorrow: 40 countries where electoral laws compel them to pro-actively publish information about their finances)

 

(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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    COMMENTS

    nagesh kini

    7 years ago

    Thank God for India, we have a few rational and right thinking MPs like Panda, Dinesh Trivedi & Co to keep our democracy live and kicking. it is the old foggy 'chor company' nextwork that wants to keep matters under the wraps. this unconstitutional amendment and another one on keeping out criminals should under no circumstances allowed to go through. no way!

    nagesh kini

    7 years ago

    Thank God for India, we have a few rational and right thinking MPs like Panda, Dinesh Trivedi & Co to keep our democracy live and kicking. it is the old foggy 'chor company' nextwork that wants to keep matters under the wraps. this unconstitutional amendment and another one on keeping out criminals should under no circumstances allowed to go through. no way!

    Veeresh Malik

    7 years ago

    Interim, many of you will be glad to know that online submission and payment of RTI Applications is functioning very well, and support as well as responses are also faster than when submitted in hard copy.

    More details can be seen here:-

    https://rtionline.gov.in/index.php

    RTI battle of Jawhar tribals get a fillip with a favourable CIC order

    Subsequent to Moneylife’s report, the State Chief Information Commissioner from Maharashtra ordered that the 1,272 RTI applicants - all tribals from Jawhar taluka of Thane district be provided complete information about their claims to the forest land

    Political leaders are working towards weakening the Right to Information (RTI) Act by perching political parties outside the RTI net and may come out triumphant on 29th August. However, at the same time, 1,272 tribal from Jawhar taluka of Thane district have strengthened their position by using the RTI Act in their fight for rightful forestland titles and are now singing a triumphant note.

     

    It was a historic day for the RTI movement when on 27th August, 10 tribals, representing the 1,272 RTI applicants from several villages from Jawhar taluka, appeared for a hearing at the Maharashtra State Chief Information Commission (SCIC)’s office near Mantralaya in Mumbai. SCIC Ratnakar Gaikwad, who had called this hearing after receiving second appeal from the tribals, ruled in their favour.

     

    Gaikwad has ordered a compensation of Rs2,000 to be paid to the 10 tribals who were made to unnecessarily file appeals. The SCIC also issued a show cause notice to the Public Information Officer (PIO) with penalty proceedings. The PIO has been asked to provide the required information in the format sought by the tribals before 31st October. Besides, Gaikwad had directed the revenue secretary to suo moto display information about claims under Forest Rights Act (FRA) for all applications received after 1 April 2011, on notice boards and on the website that would be updated every month.

     

    Just to recall, RTI applications were filed in mass, on 6 September 2012 by the tribal villagers from Jawhar taluka, under the guidance of young local activist Milind Thatte. The information sought was regarding their claims for land ownership under the Forest Right Act (DRA). Their land right had been approved by their respective Gram Sabhas after scrutiny of several government committees. However, the same was being denied or given partially to the tribals by the district collectorate, on vague grounds.

     

    When the 1,272 RTI applicants did not received information from the PIO within the stipulated 30 days, 450 applicants out of these, filed a first appeal on 16 May 2013. On 25 June 2013, the First Appellate Authority (FAA) directed the PIO to give the requisite information, but the latter did not pay heed. Hence, the tribals were forced to knock at the CIC door.

     

    When Moneylife contacted Thatte in April, he had said, “The Forest Rights Act implementation began in January 2008 across Maharashtra. Village forest rights committees (FRCs) were formed and tribal villagers filed their claims before these committees set up at different levels by the government. The committees verified these claims through spot visits and measurements. Later, the Gram Sabhas either approved or rejected these claims. The claims were then forwarded to Sub-Divisional Level Committee (SDLC) and then to District Level Committee (DLC) presided by the district collectors. The SDLC and DLC were expected to clear the claims within 60 days each. However, the tribal claimants have received their Patta (land title) only after five long years and they have been given only part of their (land) claim. This shocked the villagers as no reason was assigned as to why less land had been given to them despite clearance by committees.”

     

    Thatte then trained the tribals in filing RTI and 700 of them filed it in a single day at the Additional Collector’s officer. More followed and the final number of applicants were 1,272.

     

    The RTI applications demanded - 

    1) Copy of letter, if any, sent to the Gram Sabha for verification of my claim for my land as per Section 12 A

    2) Copy of recommendation made by the Forest Rights Committee or Sub-Divisional level committee to reduce the area of my claim for my land as per Section 12 A

    3) Copy of the letter as per Section 12 A (7) letter of rejection or of only partial allotment of land sent to the Gram Sabha and Copy of the letter sent to me stating the reason for rejection or only partial allotment of my claims to my land.

     

    Shailesh Gandhi, former central information commissioner and RTI activist, who is guiding Thatte, said, “Although PIO was asked to provide information, the appellate officer conducted hearings that became a harassing ordeal for the appellants. I attended some the first appellate hearings in Jawhar and realized that the PIO and FAA were playing tricks to deny the information to these tribals. It appeared there were no reasons for not accepting the Gram Sabha recommendations and asked them to file a second appeal. The PIO and FAA were refusing to give this information in writing that there were no reasons on records for the arbitrary actions.’’

     

    For the CIC hearing, 10 village assemblies resolved to send one representative each to the SCIC office on 27th August. Villagers donated money to cover the travel expenses. The tribal RTI applicants asked for information in the following format:

     

    No.

    Name of FRA claimant

    Evidences verified by Gram Sabha

    Land area approved by Gram Sabha

    Evidences verified by SDLC

    Land area approved by SDLC

    If land area approved is lesser than that by Gram Sabha, reasons for partial rejection

    Date of letter sent to claimant explaining the reasons for partial rejection

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

                                                                                                  

    Gandhi said, “During the hearing we made a strong plea to make this information available suo moto for all FRA claimants in Maharashtra, so that all tribals do not have to go through this trauma. This was a case of dishonest denial of information and there was no reasonable cause for denial of information. SCIC Gaikwad, took note of the complete denial of information and accepted our plea by ordering disclosure of information to all 1,272 RTI applicants, besides ensuring Section 4 suo motu disclosure of such information all over Maharashtra.’’

     

    Here is the order issued by the SCIC..

     


    The courageous citizens of Jawhar taluka will have to wait until 31st October to see whether the PIO provides the information. In any case, it will not be easy now for the district government to suppress the truth.

     

    For more information call Milind Thatte at 9421564330 http://vayamindia.wordpress.com  or write to: [email protected]  

     

    You may also want to read…

    Over 700 tribal villagers from Thane district file RTIs for their rights

    (
    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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    COMMENTS

    Shashibhushan Gokhale

    7 years ago

    Rule of law exists when it actually delivers justice to the most uneducated person. Decisions like this go a long way in strengthening democracy and belief of people in democratic ways. We need such decisions that implement existing laws and the patience of people with right guidance to tackle naxalism.

    Thanks to Shri. Ratnakar Gaikwad, Shri. Shailesh Gandhi and Shri. Milind Thatte for giving a reason to rejoice in India's democracy and congratulations to all the deserving land beneficiaries.

    shailesh kulkarni

    7 years ago

    I hope the people get what they truly deserve. Called up Milind and conveyed my best wishes to him for the noble work.

    nagesh kini

    7 years ago

    As one who has visited Jawahar and stayed there, I say that the living conditions of the tribals is absolutely horrific, children malnourished, medical and educational facilities virtually absent, no sanitation or drinking water worth the name. It is unthinkable that all this in the suburbs of Mumbai aka Urbis Primus Indes!
    Rather than merel allowing the RTI application, the State SIC ought to have ordered immediate restoration of all their legitimate rights ab initio. Giving the authorities another one month may be legally right but certainly not ethically correct.
    Each official who has been stalling the response should be heavily penalized personally. This is the penalty they should be called upon to pay for harassing hapless defenseless tribals for asserting their legitimate rights.

    Govt refers RTI Amendment Bill to Standing Committee

    Bit by bit, through individual telephone calls, petitions, letters, ballots and multifarious ways citizens have pressurised the government to follow correct democratic procedures. However, this is not the time to rest, feels the former Central Information Commissioner

    Right to Information (RTI) users have been allergic to any amendment in the Act because they know they have an Act, which is one of the best transparency acts in the World. Despite poor respect for laws and uneven implementation, citizens have found it acting as a great instrument for change. Most users have begun to feel empowered in negotiating with those in power using this instrument. Hence, they have been resisting any change in the Act. They rightly realize that those in power are uncomfortable with the Act and will weaken it if they have an opportunity. The Cabinet first decided to amend the RTI Act in 2006 and nationwide opposition to this move forced them to stall the move. In 2009, another move was made to get the Information Commissioners to support amendments to the Act, which was skilfully deflected. In 2012, ultimately the Cabinet decided not to pursue the agenda of amending the RTI Act and buried its decision of 2006 by giving a public assurance and burial to amendments.

     

    The Central Information Commission’s decision on 3 June 2013, holding six major political parties as public authorities subject to the RTI Act, upset them. This meant being accountable to citizens at not only the time of elections, but all the time in terms of providing information. This irritated them and was a challenge to their arrogance. The government used this to get collusive agreement to issue an ordinance to amend the RTI Act. Public outrage at the thought of misusing a Constitutional provision brazenly managed to stall this. The government then decided to bring an amendment bill in the Parliament, realizing the unconstitutionality of its earlier move. Across the country, there were demonstrations and petitions opposing this.  Over one lakh signatures were collected by a petition of National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI). In Gujarat, ballots were collected against the amendments and Mumbai held demonstrations outside railway stations. From many places there were reports of protests in a variety of ways.

     

    Suresh Ediga staying in the US decided to call up members of Parliament (MPs) over telephone to persuade them to oppose the amendments. Many others took to this method and either met MPs or telephoned them. The grotesqueness of the political system ganging up to hurriedly pass an amendment to constrict the citizen’s fundamental right has now begun to dawn on our politicians. Citizens pointed out to the MPs that they did not appreciate their idea of changing the law without consultations with them. They pointed out that transparency in the political parties would improve faith and trust in them and lead to a better India. The Government appears to have realized the self-goal it was scoring and hence has decided to refer the bill to the Standing Committee. Citizens have cause to celebrate and congratulate themselves.

     

    As individual citizens without any central organizing body, they are exercising their sovereignty. They did not get together in a mass, which would threaten authority. But bit by bit, through individual telephone calls, petitions, letters, ballots and multifarious ways they put pressure on those in power to adopt the correct constitutional device first and then to adopt a proper consultative and deliberative process. Citizens have done this exercise in a very mature fashion, demonstrating how to make democracy function and have held a candle to their MPs. This is how democracy must work through peaceful, persuasive engagement; not using whips and unruly methods.

     

    They will continue this process of engagement with the political class and the Parliament, until it is accepted that no RTI amendments will be made until 2025. That will be a solution, which will allow them to focus on spreading the law to all and making transparency and accountability non-negotiable in our governance. This is not the time to rest. Yes, we, the people, will make it happen. 

     

    (Shailesh Gandhi served as Central Information Commissioner under the RTI Act, 2005, during 18 September 2008 to 6 July 2012. He is a graduate in Civil Engineering from IIT-Bombay. Before becoming a full time RTI activist in 2003, he sold his packaging business. In 2008, he was conferred the Nani Palkhivala Memorial Award for civil liberties.)

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    COMMENTS

    S BHASKARA NARAYANA

    7 years ago

    Hats Off to those Citizens, who have done the above exercise in a very matured fashion. I feel guilty for not taking part with them so far.

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