Under law, Ministers should have been declaring cash, assets even before demonetisation
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has directed all ministers from Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to declare their bank account transactions between 8th November and 31 December 2016 to Party President Amit Shah. However, the fact is, all the ministers are bound by Code of Conduct and Representation of People’s Act (Section 29-A) to declare their cash and other assets. Importantly, this Code of Conduct is still not uploaded on the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) website. Treated as a confidential document, it has been procured under Right to information (RTI) Act.
The Code of Conduct rules applicable to every Union and State ministers states that:
“In addition to the observance of the provision of the Constitution, the Representation of the Peoples’ Act 1951 and any other law for the time being in force, a person before taking office as a minister, shall:
a) Disclose to the Prime Minister or the Chief Minister, as the case may be, details of the assets and liabilities and business interests of himself and members of his family. The details to be disclosed shall consist of particulars of all movable property and the total approximate value of (i) shares and debentures (ii) cash holdings and (iii) jewellery.”
In addition, Venkatesh Nayak, RTI scholar and coordinator of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) who invoked the RTI, says, “As Members of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, Ministers declare details of their assets and liabilities in accordance with Section 75A of the Representation of the People Act, 1951
(see pages 38-39 in this document). These declarations are voluntarily disclosed by the Government. Information under these declarations contain details of the "cash in hand" declared by every Minister in addition to details of bank deposits, other movable and immovable property that they own along with similar details of assets owned by his or her spouse and dependent children.’’
In fact, these details, declared by most of the Union Ministers as on 31st March 2016 are accessible on the official website of the Prime Minister's Office
. Nayak has compiled the list of ministers who have declared their cash holdings as well as their bank deposits. He says, “The biggest amount under ‘cash in hand’ in the Council of Ministers was declared by the Finance Minister - more than Rs65 lakh. The Prime Minister declared more than Rs89,000 as cash in hand.” (See list attached).
The amount ranges is between Rs80,000 to Rs22 lakh for other ministers with Jaitley’s being the highest at Rs65 lakh. So, do we expect any scandalous revelation of high cash to BJP President Amit Shah? Unlikely.
Under RTI, one can procure information about deposits made by ministers
Nayak argues that, citizens have the right to ask as to where and when ministers deposited their cash after Demonetisation. According to him, disclosing such information will not be a violation of privacy of the Ministers and citizens can use RTI Act to ask the Central Government such questions without worrying about violating the right to privacy of the Ministers.
In August 2015, the Central Government got the Attorney General of India (AGI) to question a catena of judgements of the Supreme Court that the right to privacy was a fundamental right. In a bunch of matters challenging the actions of the Government to make Aadhaar Unique Identification compulsory for a range of services and welfare programmes, the AGI put this question to the
Apex Court. The Supreme Court felt persuaded to refer the matter to a Constitution Bench to determine whether people in India indeed have a constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy.
“Given these facts, in my humble opinion, the Government's view is that there is no fundamental right to privacy for anybody including for Ministers under the Constitution. So Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act, which was designed to protect personal information from being disclosed leading to unwarranted invasion of the privacy of an individual, becomes an unreasonable restriction on the fundamental right to information which is a part of the right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. So, there should be no legal bar on providing answers to the information sought regarding where and when ministers have deposited the money,” Nayak says.
What about making funding to political parties, white and cashless?
Prime Minister Modi has not touched upon the area of political funding, much of which is in cash and unaccounted money of political parties, is in public purview. How about bringing political parties under RTI so that they are transparent and under public eye?
As Jagdeep Chhokar, former dean of Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A) and Trustee of Association of Democratic Reforms, has appropriately stated in one of his columns in Tribune, “…the reality is that the CIC declared the six political parties as public authorities under the RTI Act because they fulfilled the four conditions given in the definition of a public authority given under section 2(h) of the RTI Act. Being ‘substantially financed’ by the government is just one of those conditions. Others are exercise of constitutional authority (under Schedule 10 of the Constitution of India), the requirement of being registered under a “law made by Parliament” (Section 29-A of the Representation of the People Act, 1951), and the claim of working in and for public interest. It was the combined effect of the four reasons that made the CIC declare the six parties as public authorities.”
Anil Bairwal, founder trustee of Association of Democratic Reforms, who had filed a series of RTI applications and found concrete evidence as to why political parties are public authorities under RTI had argued in the CIC that, “A political party controls its nation by getting its candidates elected to the public offices. Political parties visibly declare that they work for the upliftment of the public. Political parties, in their hunt for power, spend more than Rs1,000 crore during elections. Nobody accounts for the bulk of the money so spent and there is no accountability anywhere. There are no proper accounts and no audit at all. In a democracy, where rule of law prevails, this type of naked display of black money, by violating the mandatory provisions of law, cannot be permitted.”
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of
Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.