The Lokpal amendment, in doing away with the mandatory disclosure of assets by July 31, may have brought some respite for public servants, as there is no imminent threat of a deadline. But it leaves unanswered the question raised by NGOs, corporates and politicians who had sought exemption from this provision citing privacy as a concern — in other words, does the disclosure of assets by public servants, their spouses and dependents constitute a breach of privacy?
Pointing out that the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), to which India is a signatory, required a legal framework for asset declarations of government officials, Rama Nath Jha, executive director of Transparency International India, says, “Compulsory disclosure of assets by government employees is not a violation of individual privacy since there is a direct link between the income/salary and the assets declared.”
According to Anjali Bharadwaj, co-convener of the National Campaign for Public Right to Information (NCPRI), the obvious marker of corruption in the Indian context is disproportionate assets. “It is difficult to catch someone in the act of bribing or receiving a bribe. The only case that can be made is one of disproportionate assets which becomes evident when one declares them,” she says.
But is there any evidence to show that asset declarations have helped clean up the system or stem the tide of corruption? Activists answer this by pointing out that public disclosure of assets serves two purposes: preventative, and as an aid to prosecution when allegations of corruption come up. Says Venkatesh Nayak of Commomwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), “The Lokpal Act was just a halfway house — it called for mandatory declaration of assets by public servants but provided no legal structure for verification of those claims. Central government employees, on the other hand, have to declare their assets as per their service rules, and their claims are verified annually by a central vigilance officer.”
India’s own experiments with bringing transparency and accountability have been aided largely by the courts and several anti-corruption campaigns. The first demand for a Lokpal, an ombudsman to look into grievances of people against public officials, was first made in the 1960s.
While the first Administrative Reforms Commission recommended that two independent authorities should be established at the Centre and State level, it was in 1968 that the Lokpal Bill was first introduced in Lok Sabha, but it lapsed with the dissolution of the Lok Sabha. It was introduced again in the Lok Sabha in 2011.
While Parliament debated the issue, the judiciary in 2002 made it mandatory for politicians contesting elections to disclose their assets on the Election Commission website, enabling citizens for the first time to access information on the assets of candidates. Then came the Right to Information Act (2005), which made mandatory not only voluntary disclosures of governance but also the salaries of employees.
Notwithstanding all these steps India has taken toward transparency, the Berlin-based corruption watchdog Transparency International Report ranked India at 76 out of 168 countries in its latest Corruption Perception Index early this year. India’s corruption perception score remains the same as last year’s — 38/100 — showing lack of improvement. We share our ranking with six other countries — Brazil, Burkina Faso, Thailand, Tunisia and Zambia.
As Jagdeep Chokkar of the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) argues, having the law is not enough. He points out that the number of candidates with criminal records has only increased since 2004 — despite the system of candidates declaring their assets publicly on the Election Commission website. “If the number of elected MPs with criminal record was 125 in 2004, the number went up to 162 in 2009 and further up to 185 in 2014.”
It is not the voter selecting a corrupt candidate, but the political parties who are fielding them, says Chokkar. While it doesn’t change the fact that the number of corrupt candidates has only increased, it does make the scale of corruption public. And exposure is also a key deterrent when it comes to fighting corruption.
Does this mean that office-bearers of NGOs receiving government funds should be on the same plane as Central government officials when it comes to disclosure requirements? “That depends,” says Nayak, adding, “To be sure, they can be made to declare their assets for the years that their NGOs receive government money. But this should not be done on the principle that they are public servants; receiving a salary from government funds does not make an NGO worker a public servant.”
With the Centre reserving its right to frame rules or procedures for disclosure of assets at a later date, the debate over this issue may well surface another day. Meanwhile, the amendment has brought a temporary end to a controversy that raged within the NGO sector.
(With Sharad Raghavan & Jacob Koshy)