Politics

Amended Lokpal Act an Attempt to Dilute Transparent Declaration Process, Say Rights Activists

The amendments will also set different standards for assets and liabilities declarations for the bureaucracy and ministers.

Representative image. Credit: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui/Files

Representative image. Credit: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui/Files

New Delhi: The central government on Wednesday tabled a Bill to amend Section 44 and the related rule-making provision in Section 59 of the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act (LL Act) to restrict its coverage to “only a public servant,” which was passed by parliament on Thursday. The amendment seeks to do away with provisions that bring the spouse and dependent children of a public servant under the ambit of the law, and to empower the government to make rules regarding the form and manner of declarations of assets and liabilities that will have retrospective effect. Rights activists, however, have expressed concerns that the Bill may be used to dilute the law, restrict the disclosures from becoming public, and protect the bureaucracy and ministers from making disclosures in a transparent fashion.

According to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative’s Venkatesh Nayak, who analysed the provisions of the Bill, “the amendments will restrict the declaration only to the assets and liabilities of the public servant. Assets and liabilities of the spouse and dependent children will be exempt from such declarations”.

Nayak also pointed out that the current formulation of Section 44 requires the mandatory public disclosure of the assets and liabilities statements by public servants on the official websites of their ministries and departments. As such, he said, “the amendments seek to do away with this proactive disclosure requirement. So people will not have access to the assets and liabilities statements of the public servant at all under the LL Act. This will only be a non-public declaration”.

The Wire had previously reported on the concerns of rights activists who have long fought to strengthen the transparency law, demanding all categories of public servants declare their assets and make these available in the public domain.

Nayak said although some sections of the media reported that NGOs will benefit from these amendments, the only benefit he could recognise is what is available to other public servants – declaring one’s own assets and liabilities, and not that of the spouse or dependent children – and that now the declarations will not be made public proactively.

But, he said, the office bearers of NGOs specified in the LL Act, such as directors, secretaries, managers and other officers, will still have to submit their assets and liability declarations to the concerned authorities. “In the case of NGOs covered by the Foreign Contribution Regulation Ac, 2010 declarations by their office bearers will have to be submitted online to the Union Home Minister. However, recent news reports indicate, the Government is contemplating extension of the deadline for this requirement,” he said.

The NGOs had all through feared that in the guise of heeding to the requests of the sector to remove its board members from the purview of the LL Act, the Centre might use the opportunity to claim those who fought for the Act are now shying away from it. According to Nayak, the fears appear to be coming true.

“It’s quite possible that the assets and liabilities declarations of IAS, IPS and IFoS officers that are currently in the public domain, may be withdrawn if the amendments to the LL Act are approved by parliament,” he asserted.

Simultaneously, he expressed apprehension that “the proactive disclosure of the assets and liabilities declarations of Union Ministers under the Code of Conduct applicable to them may also go offline as a result of the amendments to the LL Act”.

Currently, he said, the Prime Minister’s Office website displays the assets and liabilities declarations for only four cabinet ministers and two ministers of state for 2015-16.

Even when it comes to disclosure of assets by members of parliament (MPs), Nayak said they are not automatically made public. “Under 75A of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 all individuals elected to either House of Parliament are required to furnish their assets and liability statements to the Chairs of the respective Houses. Such declarations must include assets and liabilities details of their spouses and dependent children. Both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha have made Rules for ensuring compliance with this statutory requirement. People have sought this information under The Right to Information Act, 2005 often with success. Interestingly, Section 75A does not apply to members of State Legislatures.”

The RTI activist further stated that at present all candidates contesting elections to parliament, the state legislatures, and the offices of the President and the Vice President of India are also required to furnish on affidavit their assets and liabilities declaration besides data about their educational background and criminal antecedents, if any, to the Election Commission of India (ECI).

These affidavits, he said, are publicly accessible not only on the website of the ECI, but also on the notice boards of the returning officers prior to elections. “So if the amendments to the Lokpal Act receive parliamentary approval, MPs will be setting a standard for government servants that is at variance with the transparency standards that bind them during elections,” he pointed out.

Questioning the logic behind granting such exemptions to the bureaucracy and the ministers, Nayak said after the furore created by the judges’ assets case in 2009-2010, judges of several high courts, as well as judges of the Supreme Court, also began to voluntarily disclose their assets and liabilities statements. Under the LL Act all such statements would have to be proactively disclosed on the websites of these courts. But now, Nayak wonders if this practice will be retained or discarded with the amendments to the LL Act being passed.

The move, he cautioned, would also impact those states that had amended their Panchayati Raj laws requiring those candidates who contest panchayat polls to declare their assets and liabilities details on affidavit. “Whether these statutory provisions will continue to remain or be wound up by those States, in the aftermath to the amendments to the LL Act remains to be seen.”

According to Nayak, this would mean different standards for assets and liabilities declarations for public servants will operate in India.