I believe that these are very important issues. Not only must I take a clear stand, I must also engage my colleagues to support these reforms.
Am I getting support from my fellow parliamentarians?
Some of my colleagues in the House agree with the stand that I have taken. However, they may not be able to express the same openly, given the decisions taken by their parties.
There are some others though who have openly supported my call to send the Bill to a Standing Committee for detailed consideration. My colleague Ajoy Kumar, for instance, has expressed his support.
What does my own party – Biju Janata Dal (BJD) say on the issue?
Though initially there was some hesitance, we took up the matter for detailed discussion in intra-party meetings. Finally, a decision was taken to oppose the amendment being moved by the government.
BJD is now in agreement with my position. The party has given me the leeway to pursue this matter in Parliament and voice our opposition during the debate.
I request the common man to get involved
Only asking for change won’t help changing our nation. I eagerly asked the common man to get involved in the change process, especially now when it is required most.
Besides voting in general elections, our democracy provides several avenues to citizens to engage in the legislation making process. In the case of the RTI (Amendment) Bill, various civil society organizations such as the NCPRI, CHRI have aggregated the concerns of the public and submitted their petitions to the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the Prime Minister requesting that the Bill be referred to a Standing Committee for detailed consideration. I support such efforts by the civil society.
Apart from this, on an individual level also, citizens can engage their respective elected representatives and urge them to temper their positions in line with the general public sentiment. There can be no substitute to engagement with the system if citizens want good governance and accountability.
The RTI can act as a potential agent for change
Ever since it was passed in 2005, the Right to Information Act has served as a potent tool for accountability and transparency in the system. By providing ordinary citizens a justiciable right to demand information, the Act has empowered citizens, making our democracy more robust and transparent.
It is unfortunate to see the Parliament, which earlier prided itself on passing a powerful Right to Information Act, now take a u-turn to conveniently shield political parties. Not just the ruling party, but politicians across party lines are supporting this amendment.
I believe that any dilution of this historic legislation should not be undertaken without thorough deliberations on the issue in Parliament. I have personally written to the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, submitted amendments and spoken to several MPs to garner their support.
I am personally of the opinion that the correct constitutional body for seeking information from political parties 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 changes are legislated and enacted, it would be wrong to pass the proposed amendment to RTI, particularly in the face of widespread public criticism.
However that said, I understand that there are already too many cases pending in our courts. I am not expecting the RTI to change the picture in a day. Therefore I think that protecting the RTI is only a part of the solution. We will have to do a lot more to improve governance and accountability in our country - we need a slew of judicial, electoral and parliamentary reforms. Our politics needs to be cleansed of the criminally tainted. Our justice system needs to be fast-tracked to ensure that the guilty are expeditiously brought to book.
It is most unfortunate that ordinary citizens and RTI activists who have been at the forefront in exposing the wrongdoing of public functionaries have been threatened and attacked. I have been an advocate of strengthening the Whistleblower’s Protection Bill. To protect whistleblowers from victimization, this Bill needs to be thoroughly debated, strengthened and passed at the earliest.
About the Author: Mr. Baijayant 'Jay' Panda is a Lok Sabha MP from Kendrapara constituency in Odisha. He is a senior leader of Biju Janata Dal (BJD).