Should my salary and my assets be made public? If, as a citizen, I demand transparency from the executive and the judiciary as part of an improved economic governance model, should that model not trickle down? While the reluctance of the judiciary about declaring the assets of individuals who man the high offices of justice has degenerated into a depressing debate, taking cues from them and joining their ranks is the bureaucracy. Its argument, reportedly, is: we are different from politicians.
Like it or not, ensuring transparency of assets of public servants and those who the state pays and accords privileges to, is not merely a noble objective or a new age directive principle. It is an acute governance need in a country that is now gathering economic momentum on one end and seeking to end mass poverty on the other. Linking the two are individuals (let’s not dilute the debate by allowing them to hide behind ‘institutions’) who lord it over both.
These individuals have the one fungible currency that has the propensity of being misused: power. At the top end, this power can be misdirected to serve corporate interests — designing a spectrum policy that the CBI is investigating today, for instance.
Here, ministers, civil servants and policymakers have the power to manoeuvre benefits to serve a particular company. For instance, by rationing a scarce commodity, directing its usage to serve a particular group.
While a bribe-for-policy may not be the rule, what we as citizens would like to know is the institutional mechanism that prevents such transactions. And hence, the need to load the burden of personal transparency on public offices. That debate rages on.
But following the global financial crisis and the role of incentives that brought the global economy to its knees, the momentum on another debate, largely in the West with its excesses, has increased — CEO pay. The relevant question for India would be: should the salaries of private individuals come under public scrutiny? Should, for instance, CEO salaries and assets be brought under RTI? For listed companies disclosure of salary is mandatory, but what about unlisted companies and the issue of assets?
Since we have public officials working in institutions such as the Income Tax department who periodically review and oversee salary slips, income and expenditure statements and keep an eye on unaccounted for wealth, perhaps the disclosure is not necessary.
Private individuals function in the market, public officials oversee their legal inflows and outflows and after paying legitimate taxes what a person does with the money is her choice.
The problem arises at the intersection of the public official and the private citizen. The ‘official’ can abuse authority and misdirect money to the ‘individual’ behind the official. In collusion, the private citizen can pay his way out of an investigation and turn ill-gotten gains legit through a corrupt and complex money laundering network.
Under such circumstances, given that the private individual has evaded taxes and hence has caused a loss to the exchequer, should private income and wealth be brought under RTI? The flip side of this question is: as a society, how much loss of privacy are we willing to accept?
I don’t have any answers yet.
While on transparency, there’s another issue I’d like to flag. Last night I was at a rock concert where the glamorous cherry on a musical rock show was Farhan Akhtar of ‘Rock On’ fame. Akhtar came but largely to sell the car of the company sponsoring the event. He sang all of two songs towards the end and drove off. My question: should event management companies be making a disclosure of how long the star — whose presence attracts people to the event —is going to be on stage when they advertise? A transparent society would ensure that.