RTI activists are up in arms against political parties and, quite rightly, want all political parties to be come under the RTI scanner.

Political parties have, time and again, refused to divulge any information asked under RTI Act stating that they aren’t public authorities. Peeved with this attitude, two activists, Anil Bairwal of Association of Democratic Reforms and Subhash Chandra Agarwal, filed a complaint against all political parties before Central Information Commission (CIC).

Reportedly, The Association of Democratic Reforms had asked all the political parties about their largest donors and the manner of the donations. All parties, other than CPI, refused to answer the questions stating that they aren’t government authorities and hence not bound to answer any questions.

The complaint filed by the two activists prompted the CIC to call a meeting with all the political parties’ secretariats to discuss transparency law and information dissemination. The meeting held on 26th September 2012 was ditched by most of these political parties other than CPI and NCP. The meeting concurrently was cancelled and a new date for the meeting is yet to be decided.

When it comes to exploiting power and enjoying sops, these political parties are the first to claim them but when it comes to talk about responsibility and accountability, they get defensive.

All political parties benefit immensely from various sops offered to them for being a ‘political party,’ one of such sops being 100 per cent tax exemption on income. It was recently reported that, due to this tax exemption, six major political parties saved more than Rs 500 crore between the years 2006 - 2009.

This means that, indirectly, they are benefitting from the exchequer’s money; which, according to RTI activists make them liable to be declared as ‘public authority’ and come under the RTI Act.

Out of all the political outfits, the Congress party was the one that gained that most. It got the maximum exemption of Rs 300.92 crore. The next in line was BharatiyaJanata Party (BJP) which saved Rs 141.25 crore in taxes. Other parties that profited from the tax exemption were BahujanSamaj Party (BSP), which saved Rs 39.84 crore, Communist Party of India (Marxist) saved Rs 18.13 crore, Communist Party of India Rs 24 crore, and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) Rs 9.64 crore.

This data, was compiled by activist groups Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) and National Election Watch (NEW).  Tax exemption is given political parties under provisions of Section 13(A) of the Income Tax Act.

The definition of public authority under Section 2(h) of the RTI is - any non-government organisation that is substantially financed, directly or indirectly by funds provided by the appropriate government.' And, since political parties enjoy tax benefits, land allotment and other such facilities, they should be included under the definition of ‘public authority.’ It was also reported that, in all, the six political parties were allotted land worth Rs 456.91 crore.

Besides that, the activists also pointed out the fact that free slots for advertisement are given to political parties on state-run Doordarshan and All India Radio during election time.

Political parties representatives go about damaging public property during bandhs and other protests causing immense losses to public funds that run into crores of rupees but they don’t want to be questioned about it.They have the right to use public money and damage public property but they don’t want to be held accountable.

It was reported that around 123 BEST buses were damaged in the ‘bandh’ protest called by BJP in May this year against hike in petrol prices. And, when it came to compensating for damages, one of the BJP party leaders, also on the BEST committee, was quick to point out to point out that the parties (BJP and Shiv Sena) that damaged the buses shouldn’t be paying the compensation for repairing the buses and that it should be claimed from the insurance companies. Although he was generous enough to mention that he understands that it will cause people trouble since almost 100 buses will be off the road for around a month.

The parties that refuse to be held accountable for their actions, benefit from public’s money, damage public property, yet refuse to act like a ‘public authority.’

So, when an upcoming political party accuses a member of another influential political party’s family member of a multi-crore rupee scam, if asked about their income and funding that come for the party, they can swiftly refuse to divulge any information regarding the same.

It was recently reported that, out of the 700 political posters that lined the city roads during Ganpati festival, only 41 were legal and rest were put up without BMC’s permission. This is when the rates for political hoardings were just Rs 182 for the first sqmt and Rs 121 for every subsequent sqmt.

These political parties are always swift to say that they will ‘look into the matter’ and ‘take action against their party members who put up illegal hoarding’ we don’t have a ‘right’ to question them about the ‘action’ that they take against such members who deface our city.

So, while all the politicians publically maintain that they are all for transparency regarding funds of political parties and such, when it comes to acting on it, they all went AWOL in the CIC meeting regarding the same issue.

A similar issue had risen in 2008 when the ADR and NEW had asked to make IT returns and contributions of political parties public. Even then, political parties were reluctant to share such information with the public and had protested but the ADR and NEW had won the CIC judgement.

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