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Opening their own closet

Five officials, four IAS and an IPS, have declared their assets in Uttar Pradesh. Will it trigger a campaign for uprightness among officers, as the judiciary just witnessed? asks Neelesh Misra.

india Updated: Nov 12, 2009 00:58 IST
Neelesh Misra

One of the most powerful bureaucrats in India owns just one car — a 10-year-old Fiat. Vijay Shankar Pandey, an additional Cabinet secretary in the country’s political powerhouse of Uttar Pradesh and one of the most trusted aides of Chief Minister Mayawati, doesn’t have any cash on himself either but his author wife Smita does — Rs 4,000 in all. And there is Rs 1.17 lakh in the bank, and tax saving investments worth Rs 2.5 lakh.But many among India’s 10,000-odd administrative and police service officers, the backbone of governance, are believed to own much more than 10-year-old Fiat cars.

To set an example, Pandey and four other officers — Sunil Kumar, Renuka Kumar and Raju Sharma of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and Indian Police Service (IPS) officer Jasveer Singh — wrote on November 6 to Cabinet Secretary K.M. Chandrasekhar, head of the civil services, giving their wealth details, and also made them public on a blog (www.declareyourassets.blogspot.com). It is a move that comes alongside some unexpected and unprecedented developments related to probity among India’s public figures — cleanup efforts by the judiciary and an investigation into Rs 4,300 crore worth of allegedly illegal wealth of former Jharkhand Chief Minister Madhu Koda. The five officers who declared their assets are part of a low-profile anti-corruption organisation called India Rejuvenation Initiative (IRI). Its members include former Chief Justice of India R.C. Lahoti, former Punjab Director General of Police Julio Rebeiro, former air force chief S. Krishnaswamy, former Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) J.M. Lyngdoh, former Comptroller and Auditor General V.K. Shunglu and anti-corruption campaigner and journalist Sharat Pradhan.

After the latest initiative, some other IAS officers are said to be preparing to make their wealth public. Will it lead to something bigger and have a cascading effect on enforcing transparency among bureaucrats? Will that place Pandey alongside Karnataka High Court Judge D.V. Shylendra Kumar, whose against-the-current stand on declaring judges’ wealth eventually forced the Supreme Court to declare judges’ wealth on the Internet? “If the judges have given in, who are these people (IAS) to stand up? They will have to declare their assets,” Lyngdoh told Hindustan Times. “They will try their best to pull the strings — but eventually they will come around.”

The landmark decision by Supreme Court judges to declare their assets came after a similar move by three men. Shylendra Kumar, a Karnataka High Court judge, questioned Chief Justice of India K.G. Balakrishnan’s right to oppose the declaration of assets on behalf of all judges.

Soon after, Punjab and Haryana High Court judge M.K. Kannan uploaded details of his wealth on the internet. Madras High Court judge K. Chandru followed soon after.

“Much before the judges’ campaign started, we have been writing to the Prime Minister saying that public service conduct rules should be amended and all this should be in the public domain,” Shunglu said.

“It’s a different matter that no action has been taken by the government,” he said. “Public servants are much more accountable on a day-to-day basis.”

There are uncanny parallels between the approach that India’s judicial leadership initially took and the stand that the top bureaucracy is taking now.

A committee of secretaries of the central government is currently said to be mulling over whether to make the audacious move to take the personal assets of the bureaucracy out of the scope of public scrutiny through the Right to Information. After a recent order of Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) that would make IAS and IPS officers annually declare their movable and immovable properties, the thorny issue was referred to Chandrasekhar.

“I feel that transparency is a must in public administration and all those who are paid by the public exchequer should not have any hesitation in revealing their assets,” said Pandey, who sits in an unassuming office that exudes simplicity but wields great power — on the out-of-bounds fifth floor of the State Secretariat annexe in Lucknow.

Singh, the IPS officer, suggested a law that covered everyone working with public money — including non-government organisations, and that the government set up an Accountability and Integrity Commission, empowered to scrutinise those declarations of assets.

“Public servants mean both the politicians and the bureaucrats,” Singh said. “The assets of all of them — right from a class-four (lower ranking) employee to the Prime Minister of the country — should be declared for public scrutiny.” The step has been widely

welcomed. But some believe India’s bureaucracy is far too hard-boiled.

“Honesty is an exception today rather than the norm,” said Magsaysay award winner Sandeep Pandey. “I don’t see a movement for uprightness among bureaucrats because of this campaign. Nevertheless, this is a welcome step.”

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