Friday, July 29, 2016

Diluted Lokpal Act Makes Transparency Wear A Cloak: Has India's Fight Against Graft Fizzled Out?


Recently,  Lok Sabha passed an amendment to the Lokpal and Lakayuktas Act, 2013 to extend the deadline for filing asset declarations beyond 31 July for 50 lakh central government employees and NGOs receiving government funds.

A day later, the Rajya Sabha on Thursday also approved the same amendment, called the Lokpal and Lokayukta (Amendment) Bill, 2016. Ironically, this approval by the Rajya Sabha came just a day after the Congress had on Wednesday said that it was "not binding" on it to back the government on the issue in the Rajya Sabha where it does not have numbers.

This amendment is significant and controversial because it dilutes a provision in the Lokpal Act, 2013 which was one of the results of the India Against Corruption movement which had shaken the country in 2011 and 2012.

Why is the Lokpal and Lokayukta (Amendment) Bill, 2016 important?
This amendment affects only Section 44 of the Lokpal Act, which in turn deals with the declaration of assets and liabilities of the public servants and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who come under the purview of the Act.
The NGOs which receive over Rs 1 crore in government grants and donations above Rs 10 lakh come under the purview of the Act.

Earlier, as per rules notified under the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013, every public servant was supposed to file declaration, information and annual returns pertaining to his or her assets and liabilities on 31 March every year or on or before 31 July of that year, according to PTI. For 2014, the last date for filing returns was 15 September of that year. It was first extended till December 2014, then till 30 April, 2015. The third extension was up to 15 October. The date was then extended to 15 April this year for filing of returns for 2014 and 2015.

But in April, the deadline was extended yet again till 31 July. With the latest amendment, the deadline for declaration has now gone beyond 31 July.
Apart from the obvious problem that the deadline for declaration has been continuously extended since 2014, the amendment also does not provide any further details of when and how the public servants and NGOs will make their declaration, reported The Times of India. The amendment just states that the public servants will make a declaration in such form and manner "as may be prescribed".

The amendment also exempts the spouse and dependent children of public servants from declaring their assets, something which further reduces the transparency of the original Act. The amendment also came amid criticism that the government was diluting the transparency law by classifying NGO officials as public servants.

The TOI report also said that the provisions which were affected by the amendment had been made part of the Act during UPA rule in the aftermath of the India Against Corruption movement led by Anna Hazare, which had sought to bring about more transparency in governance.

The politics behind the amendment:
Because of yet another deadline extension and exemption of family members of public servants from declaration, the government was criticised for attempting to dilute the Lokpal Act after the amendment was passed in Lok Sabha.

On Wednesday, the Congress had said that it was "not binding" on it to support the government in Rajya Sabha on this issue. "We have to live with the reality of numbers in the Lok Sabha...Certainly it does not mean it is binding on us in the Rajya Sabha," PTI had quoted Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi as saying.

Yet, the amendment was also passed in the Rajya Sabha.

Even in the Lok Sabha, the government seemed to have been in a strange hurry to pass the amendment. According to The New Indian Express, even though the amendment was not listed in the initial list of business, a supplementary list of business was moved at around noon on Wednesday.

Many MPs had complained of not getting enough time to go through the amendment bill. Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs SS Ahluwalia was rushing around the House, talking to MPs like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mallikarjun Kharge. He had also met many leaders even before the bill was moved in the House. The bill was passed without a discussion and had been moved by Minister of State in the PMO Jitender Singh.

Even though CPM and TMC raised objections to the manner in which the amendments had been moved in the House, the amendment bill was later passed by a voice vote.

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