In the New Year, the Modi government will seek to keep better account of the assets of babus. In a recent order by the Centre’s Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), bureaucrats have been told that those who do not declare their assets and liabilities by January 31 next will be denied vigilance clearances needed for promotions, empanelment for senior posts and foreign postings. This follows up on an earlier DoPT order issued over six years back in April 2011, with several extensions since then. The latest deadline set on 1st January, 2018 has been extended by a month for bureaucrats ‘who have not yet complied with earlier orders’ to submit their Immovable Property Returns (IPRs). The DoPT has even designed an online module which babus can log into for filing such returns. Only last September, a senior bureaucrat in Andhra Pradesh made headlines just three days away from retirement. Launching as simultaneous raids at his properties spread across several cities in Andhra and Maharashtra, Anti-Corruption Bureau sleuths on the first day itself totalled disproportiote assets worth over Rs 500 crore. On a reported monthly income of Rs 1 lakh, this babu amassed these assets including prime urban lands and a luxury hotel. No prizes for guessing how he did it, for such seizures and arrests of rogue bureaucrats have become all-too-common in State after State, Assam no exception. Observers are now viewing the latest DoPT order as the Modi government’s renewed thrust on ‘zero-tolerance towards graft’, that it means business in ensuring greater transparency by making bureaucrats toe the line. If so, will it succeed?
In 2011 too, the DoPT had warned defaulting bureaucrats of withholding vigilance clearances, putting their mes on its website, denying promotion and taking other punitive action. Earlier, property returns filed by government officers were scrutinised only if there was a crimil investigation ongoing or on suspicion of corruption. The DoPT, in fact, had been stoutly rejecting RTI applications seeking details of assets of government servants, on grounds of privacy. The Central Information Commission (CIC) had been arguing otherwise — that disclosure of assets of a public servant is not debarred under invasion of privacy clause of Right to Information Act. With the pressure mounting, particularly after the An Hazare-led India Against Corruption movement, the DoPT in 2014 had to change the rules on property returns so as to make the information public. As per these rules notified under the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, every public servant was to file declaration, information and annual returns of assets and liabilities (as on March 31 every year) by July 31; such declarations would include those of spouses and dependent children, and would be in addition to returns filed under various services rules. This at once provoked a backlash from the bureaucracy. Civil servant associations made frantic representations that declaring assets of family members ‘would compromise their security’. The wife of a government official moved Delhi High Court, contending that the DoPT rule violated her right to privacy. There was much brainstorming within the government whether family members of government servants should be exempted from making such disclosures, or to keep the information in sealed cover to be opened only during investigations or official proceedings against the concerned official.
At this juncture the question arose whether elected political representatives could also raise ‘similar apprehensions’ about disclosing assets of family members, if the demand of government servants was accepted. Be as it may, Parliament last year passed the Lokpal and Lokayuktas (Amendment) Bill, 2016, exempting spouse and children from mandatory disclosure of assets by public servants. During the debate, the point was raised as to what will the government do if corrupt officials stash away ill-gotten gains in the mes of their spouses and children. However, with the Modi government also ecting a law against bemi property, it now has an instrument to seize such assets. Nevertheless, large sections of the bureaucracy continue to be recalcitrant, and political leaders can push them only so far. Even a firebrand leader like Yogi Adityath came up against a wall of such defiance when he ordered babus to declare their assets, immediately after taking reins in Lucknow as UP chief minister. At a tiol convention organised by a students’ body in Gurugram recently, BJP tiol vice president Viy Sahasrabuddhe put it candidly by speaking as “an academician first and a politician later”. According to him, politicians who are supposed to give orders to bureaucrats have “little knowledge of the subject” and those instructed to obey the orders “turally have a sense of contempt”. What he did not mention was that, with many political leaders themselves steeped in corruption after coming through an opaque electoral funding system, blatant use of muscle power and using officialdom to run a flourishing commission raj — there is little moral authority left in the system to keep babus in line! If the Modi government really cracks the whip this time by denying babus any more extension to declare assets, it will be an achievement with an election year rapidly nearing.