The Times of India
New Delhi

NEW DELHI: While holding public hearings on the RTI amendment bill, the standing committee will be confronted not only with legal arguments. It will also have to deal with statistics on how the existing system for transparency on political funding has been routinely subverted. 

Sample this. For the years 2009-10 and 2010-11, Congress declared that only 14% of its income was from donations. It claimed the bulk of its funding — to the tune of Rs 57,347 lakh — was from a mysterious category called "sale of coupons". One of the top three sources of income for BJP accounting for Rs 2,988 lakh was an unexplained entity called Aajiwan Sahayog Nidhi. Though its total income was Rs 17,267 lakhs, BSP claimed none of the donations received by it was above Rs 20,000. 

These stark statistics bring out the critical difference inclusion of political parties in RTI's ambit will make, towards countering the current opacity on source of funding. In their annual returns before the income tax department (IT) and the Election Commission (EC), political parties have on average been evasive about 80% of their income. 

This shocking discovery was made by the Association for Democratic Rights (ADR) on the basis of returns obtained under RTI from the IT department of all political parties for financial years 2004-05 to 2010-11. The acquiescence of the IT department to such a large proportion of unexplained income is a compelling argument to allow citizens hold to account political parties. 

Though they're required to disclose the names of all those who donated more than Rs 20,000, political parties have adopted a range of devises to hide about 80% of their funding in 2009-10 and 2010-11. 

If the Central Information Commission's (CIC) landmark decision of June 3 is allowed to come into force, political parties will be liable to reveal the identities of all those donors so far dubiously concealed. Once political parties are regarded "public authorities" under RTI, the public vigilance that will follow may check the insidious capacity of unaccounted money in the running of the country. 

The study by ADR, which was a complainant before CIC, shows there's need for greater transparency even for accounted money. Some of the most high profile corporate groups are altogether missing from donor-lists disclosed by various political parties. This is despite factoring in the common practice of routing corporate donations through trusts. 

The forays by the transparency law may also force the system to adopt a standard format of returns for political parties under the IT Act's section 13A. 

According to Association for Democratic Rights's Jagdeep Chokkar, much of the claims parties currently make are "intractable even to chartered accountants and former IT commissioners". 

The farce on the expenditure front is also evident from declarations filed by candidates before the EC. Out of 6,753 candidates in the 2009 Lok Sabha election, only four admitted to have exceeded the statutory limit of Rs 25 lakh as poll expense. Thirty more admitted to have spent up to 90% of the limit. A whopping 99% of the candidates claimed to have spent 45 to 55% of their entitlement. Besides stretching credulity, these figures underline the need for RTI to track the income and expenditure of political parties.

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