Thursday, July 3, 2008

A law that begs for failure

The Lokayukta Act requires legislators to provide statements regarding their assets, as also those of their family members, once in two years. It is said 64 members of the Assembly were required to file statements this year. Monday, June 30, was the last date for the purpose. According to a report in Kerala Kaumudi, by 6 p.m. on that day 78 MLAs had filed statements. Obviously at least 14 persons who were not required to file statements came forward to do so. Such tremendous enthusiasm to respect the law!

Many MLAs were actually making up for arrears. Only 19 of them had filed statements of assets before the competent authority by the due date last year, according to information provided by the Governor’s office to D. B. Binu, general secretary of the Human Rights Defence Forum, who had filed an application under the Right to Information Act. The Governor’s office apparently does not like parting with such information. The RTI Act says the information sought must be provided within a month of receipt of an application. The Public Information Officer at Raj Bhavan did not provide the information for six months. Thereupon Binu, who is a lawyer, then approached the State Information Commission seeking action against the defaulting official. It was only then that he was given the information. The Commission imposed a fine of Rs. 25,000 on the PIO for failure to provide the information in time.

Some questions arise from the information given by the officer belatedly. One of them is: how many ministers were among those who did not file statements? The Chief Minister, the Speaker and the ministers add up to more than 19. Since only 19 MLAs filed statements, it appears that the defaulters include not only ordinary MLAs but also some who hold higher positions. Are the citizens not entitled to know who those honourable members are?

Not only MLAs but all public servants at various levels are required to furnish statements about assets. The Lokayukta Act provides a long list of persons who come under the definition of public servant. According to this list, those who were Chief Minister, ministers or MLAs earlier and those who are or were chairmen, vice-chairmen and members of local authorities, companies, boards and cooperative institutions under the control of the State government are also public servants. All those who draw pay from these institutions as also from cooperative societies and universities also come within the definition of public servant. All of them have to submit statements regarding their assets and liabilities, as also those of family members, every two years in a prescribed form to the designated authority.

Those who drew up the law have included in it enough provisions to defeat it. The form in which the public servant has to furnish information about assets and liabilities can be seen at the government’s website. The only information it seeks about assets is the monthly salary. It seeks more information about liabilities: the extent of liabilities, what kind of liabilities, when incurred.

The law stipulates that if a public servant does not furnish the statement of assets and liabilities in time the competent authority must report the matter to the Lokayukta or Upa-lokayukta as the case maybe. A copy of the report must be sent to the person concerned. He will then get two more months to file the statement. That is his last opportunity to do so. What if he does not file the statement even then? Still nothing will happen to him. For, the Lokayukta does not have the power to punish a defaulter. All that he can do is to publish the names of the defaulters in three widely circulated newspapers of the State.

It is eight years since the Lokayukta Act came into force. I have no recollection of seeing a list of defaulters in any newspaper during this period. Have you?
Although government officials come within the definition of public servants, they are not required to furnish statements of assets under this law. Judges, too, are outside its purview. There are other laws and rules applicable to them. The fact, however, is that there is no mechanism for scrutiny of information provided under any law. The statement furnished by an official is looked into only if there is a corruption inquiry against him. So long as there is no inquiry the information will remain in the file as an official secret.

It is said that the practice in Kerala is for a minister to provide the statement in a sealed cover to the Chief Minister, who sends it to the Raj Bhavan without opening. Even if the minister forgets to put the statement in the envelope, the Chief Minister or Governor may not know it. To dispel possible suspicion that I am unnecessarily casting doubts on the efficiency of ministers and their personal staff, let me narrate an incident that actually happened. On the morning of August 15, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru drove to the residence of the Governor-General, Earl Mountbatten, and gave him an envelope in the presence of photographers, saying it contained the names of the members of the first Council of Ministers of Free India. Mountbatten took the envelope. When he opened it after Nehru had left, it was empty. The cover had been sealed without putting the list of ministers in it.

Now, under the Representation of the People Act, a candidate seeking election is required to furnish information about his assets as also those of the members of his family. The Election Commission immediately publishes the information so received. In the circumstances, what is the need to keep the information given by an elected member under the Lokayukta Act secret?

Kerala can follow Karnataka’s example in this regard. A few weeks ago the Lokayukta of that State ordered that charge-sheets be filed under Section 177 of the Indian Penal Code against three MLAs and one former MLA for providing false information in their statements of assets. If the Kerala law, as it now stands, does not permit such action, the government must be ready to amend it. There must be provisions for not only collecting but also publishing information about the assets of those high-up in the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary periodically. If the information furnished is incomplete or false, the public must have the opportunity to point it out. The state has to demonstrate its faith in transparency through faultless legislation.

Based on column ‘Nerkkazhcha’ appearing in Kerala Kaumudi dated July 3, 2008

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