India’s ministers want a code of ethics that can bind regulators, civil servants and the judges — everyone but the ministers themselves.
The government rejected the Second Administrative Reforms Commission’s call for an enforceable code for ministers and units at the offices of Prime Minister and Chief Ministers to track implementation.
About six months ago, an empowered group of ministers headed by Pranab Mukherjee took the decision. It also turned down a proposal to set up an Ethics Commissioner for MPs.
The group however, accepted suggestions for an ethical framework for the civil services and regulators like the the National Judicial Council, empowered to lay down a code for judges.
The report recommended that the Prime Minister - or the Chief Minister concerned - be “duty-bound” to ensure the observance of the Code of Ethics and the Code of Conduct by Ministers. It also required a report to be tabled annually in the legislature on the violations.
In another Parliament that inspired our own, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown promised a statutory code of conduct as part of democratic reforms triggered by a scandal where MPs claimed expenses ranging from tax advice to swimming pools and pornographic movies.
India has a basic version of a code of conduct for ministers, which has been kept under wraps for decades.
“It is not comprehensive in its coverage… it does not amount to a Code of Ethics,” the commission headed by Veerappa Moily – law minister in the second edition of the Manmohan Singh government— said in its 2007 report.
V. Ramachandran, who last served as acting chairman of the commission, said the ethics code was required since the existing code does not have any legal basis.
“I think the government should not have rejected our recommendation but at least kept it pending till it was comfortable,” Ramachandran said from Chennai.
The existing code of conduct for ministers is too skeletal. Violations don’t attract any penalty. For instance, eight ministers in the first edition of the UPA government did not submit their list of assets to the Prime Minister even once. A rule introduced in the code by Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2003 requires this declaration every year.
It is due to the lack of teeth that Pranab Mukherjee in 2003 – as an opposition leader – went as part of a Congress delegation to then President APJ Abdul Kalam to seek a parliamentary probe against six central ministers accused of “milking” public sector undertakings under their charge.
The existing six-point code of conduct does not make wastage of public funds a violation.