Transparency is a bureaucrat’s worst nightmare. That is what Pune-based financial consultant Vihar Durve (49), and many thousands of other across the country, has discovered to his disgust.
Durve has filed more than 15 right to information (RTI) requests and appeals over the last year, but he still hasn’t received information on the annual property return statements filed by Maharashtra government officials and the state’s information commissioners.
Under service and conduct rules, “all officials are supposed to submit these declarations detailing their property ownership as well as financial investments to the General Administrative Department of their government”.
In March 2008, the Central Information Commission (CIC) ruled that central and state governments could not keep such documents confidential, and that making them public could help “contain corruption”.
But government departments in Mumbai have consistently stonewalled Durve’s requests. Their reasons range from “the information is in sealed envelopes which the information officer cannot open” to “the information has been destroyed”, to “the information is personal, and disclosing it has no relation to public interest”.
Durve is now waiting for the state’s information commission to decide his appeal. “This is like saying a drawer cannot be opened since it was closed until now. Why do officials hide the fact that RTI supercedes all prior laws?”
Former Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad professor Jagdeep Chokkar, co-founder of the Association for Democratic Reforms, which moved the Supreme Court in 2003 to mandate that all electoral candidates should declare their assets and criminal records, explains why you should be interested in these returns.
“All corruption in India flows from the government. If citizens can get politicians, judges and officials to be transparent, it will have a snowballing (clean-up) effect on all areas of our life,” he said.
In UP, information commissioner Gyanendra Sharma took the CIC’s March 2008 order a step further last November and ruled that bureaucrats should make public these statements under the law’s suo moto disclosure clause. Two months later, he concedes: “There has not been any compliance from the government yet.”
In Ahmedabad, community organiser Harinesh Pandya battled two levels of bureaucrats through all of 2008 after finally getting the Gujarat information commission to order a disclosure of an IAS officer’s annual returns last month.
“Officials argued that the information was exempted from the RTI law. But we think making such documents public will act as a check on officers owning disproportionate assets, or at least raise questions about the issue. The commission agreed with us,” Pandya said.
The unfortunate fact of life remains that a majority of bureaucrats still don’t.