The higher judiciary has succeeded in winning the cabinet’s approval to keep the wealth details of Supreme Court and High Court judges secret.
At its meeting which continued till late on Thursday night, the cabinet okayed the law ministry’s controversial draft bill, which while making it mandatory for judges, their wives and children to declare their assets annually, also lays down that all such details will be kept confidential.
It was precisely this confidentiality that the judiciary, keen to remain outside the ambit of the Right to Information Act, had been lobbying for. The decision clearly shows that the lobbying has been successful.
Law minister M. Veerappa Moily is likely to introduce the bill in Parliament next week. It remains to be seen whether the legislation will sail through in its present form, given that even Congress Rajya Sabha members led by Rajeev Shukla had harshly criticised the judiciary’s opposition to greater transparency during earlier debates.
Top jurists slammed the move. Former CJI, Justice J.S. Verma, who had made assets declaration for judges mandatory in 1997, called the new bill “a joke.” “You want to maintain confidentiality only if you are hiding something,” he said.
“It was Supreme Court judges who made it mandatory for candidates contesting elections to declare their assets. Then why should they not do the same themselves?”
Former Supreme Court judge Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer said the government lacked the political will to reform the judiciary. “It is shameful that judges want secrecy and the government is abetting it,” he said.
The law ministry said the criticism of the draft bill was unfair.
“This is the first time that a law is being made for the mandatory declaration of assets by judges,” said a ministry official not authorised to speak to the media. “It’s a small but a significant step. The wealth details of judges will be kept confidential only up to a point. There is a provision...for assets scrutiny in case of allegations against any judge.”
Moily remained tightlipped. “It’s not proper for me to comment when Parliament is in session,” he said.