The Association for Democratic Reforms has observed a disproportionate increase in the assets of 42 MPs and MLAs between two elections, as per their declarations before the Election Commission of India. The watchdog body tried to reconcile these records with the income tax returns of the elected representatives, but was refused on grounds of privacy. But given the gravity of its findings, the ADR approached the Central Information Commission, which is likely to give its ruling on whether the income tax returns of Members of Parliament can be made public on April 16, 2013.

ADR first sought information regarding the Income Tax Returns of the MPs and MLAs in February 2010, after noticing an exponential increase in their assets between two elections. This was denied under Sections 8(1)(j), 8(1)(e) and 8(1)(d) of the RTI Act in May 2010, and again in August 2010. Thereafter, it went to the Central Information Commission, which conducted a full bench hearing. The ruling is expected next week.

If favourable, this will take the battle for accountability of people’s representatives and public servants a notch higher. Despite Prime Minister Manmohan Singh making transparency of public persons one of the major initiatives of his tenure in 2004  the cornerstone of his promise of clean government — actual compliance has fallen short of promise.

Resistance has taken many forms. In May 2011, the ethics committee of the Rajya Sabha decided that details of the assets and wealth of Rajya Sabha members would not be placed in the public domain. Instead, persons or organisations seeking the information could take permission from the Rajya Sabha chairperson who was empowered to sanction it under the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Rules, 2004. A similar system prevails in the Lok Sabha as well.

Then, not all MPs have declared their assets despite reminders from the Secretariat of both Houses. Even information from MPs who have submitted details of their assets and liabilities have not been uploaded on the websites on grounds that it is not feasible to computerise all the documents.

The Lok Sabha ethics committee, however, has recommended opening a register of the Members’ financial interests, which could be accessed by the public, a reform already implemented by the Rajya Sabha. The move is expected to buttress people’s faith in Parliament. The matter is now pending before the rules panel, chaired by the Speaker.

The Rajya Sabha register requires an MP to provide details such as the name and address of the company, nature of company business, salary, allowances and any other taxable receipts if he/she is a director of any company. The MPs have to submit details of their regular remunerated activities and remuneration received. They also have to provide details of shares held in any company in a controlling nature; details of paid consultancy in any business organisation; and details of professional engagement and remuneration from any other business organisations.

Under the Members of Lok Sabha (Declaration of Assets and Liabilities) Rules, 2004, every elected candidate has to furnish details of movable and immovable property in the names of himself/herself, spouse and dependent children, within 90 days of being sworn in as an MP. This includes liabilities to any public financial institution or Central or State Government. So far, this information is treated as confidential.

The Rajya Sabha register has revealed that four ministers who are Members of the House have declared that they have financial or business interests. Another 10 Ministers, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, have said they have no pecuniary or financial interest of any kind. In all, 92 Rajya Sabha members have declared financial interests in business activities ranging from remunerative directorship of firms, share holding of controlling nature in companies, and money from professional engagements.

The purpose of the register is to prevent MPs with conflict of interests from being on related Parliamentary Committees and participating in related discussions. But observance has fallen far short of objective, with the result that industrialist Vijay Mallya managed to secure a berth on the Standing Committee on Industry, and Supreme Court advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi headed the Standing Committee on Law and Justice (until forced to step down after a controversy in another matter).

Activists feel that the register is only the first step in the goal of transparency, and that it is necessary to probe some obvious inconsistencies in the claims made. They say Income-Tax authorities should send review notices to MPs who have a huge asset base, often running into hundreds of crores of rupees, yet claim that they have no pecuniary interests.

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