When information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi voluntarily declared his assets (Rs 5.38 crore) last November, it was to set an example for his colleagues in the Central Information Commission (CIC). “I have requested the Central Information Commissioner (Wajahat Habibullah) to post the list of assets of all the commissioners on the website of the CIC,” Gandhi, an alumnus of Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, who sold a thriving plastics business to pursue his goal of ensuring transparency in public life, had told
soon after that.
But the people mandated to ensure transparency in public life took refuge behind the oldest bureaucratic trick in the book to perpetuate the opacity surrounding themselves. Information dead end
“We will have to take into account the procedures for submission of such declarations in other commissions before taking a final decision,” Wajahat Habibullah, Chief Information Commissioner, told HT.
Presumably, the CIC, which routinely orders politicians and government departments to part with information to the public, is still poring over the procedures – no other member of the 8-member CIC has declared his assets.
But pressure is mounting, not only on the information commissioners but also on others holding high constitutional office – like judges and election commissioners – to declare their assets. There are reports that some Supreme Court and High Court judges want to end the controversy over the judiciary’s reluctance to declare assets by doing so.
But the official position is that judges do not come under the purview of the Right to Information (RTI) Act and the CIC’s order directing judges to declare their assets has been stayed on appeal by the Delhi High Court.
The Election Commission, too, was quick to deny details of the assets of its three commissioners. The reason: the information, apparently, is not available with it.
Ironically, politicians, much vilified for alleged corruption, have to, and do, declare their assets – once at the time of filing nomination papers when they contest elections, and then again, annually to the presiding officers of their respective legislatures.
Here, Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee set an example by making public the declarations that were filed by members to him.
In a telling comment, in the context of the judiciary’s unwillingness to declare assets, he recently said: “There is no law that says you have to be honest. Honesty is not imposed by law. Dishonesty is treated as a crime.”
But the two commissions and the judiciary continue to evade public scrutiny. Magsasay award winner and RTI activist Arvind Kejriwal feels “the time has come to scrap the rules that allow retired bureaucrats to evade scrutiny”.
Gandhi has set an example. Now, it is for other high constitutional functionaries to follow his example.