Why shouldn’t I-T returns of MPs come under RTI Act?
Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) has invoked RTI to access I-T returns of 22 MPs and 20 MLAs whose assets considerably shot up between their two terms of offices. The information is still under wraps. I-T refuses to divulge the information while the CIC dithers
For the start, the Election Commission of India has made it mandatory for every candidate contesting elections to declare his/her last income tax (I-T) returns and also that of his/her family members. Since the last one decade, the Supreme Court has ruled that every such candidate must mandatorily declare his/her financial and criminal antecedents. However, the Central Information Commissioner in true ‘babu’ style has withheld the decision of a RTI (Right to Information) applicant seeking income tax details of 44 elected representatives in the 22nd November order, stating it needs to study it.
Since 2010, Anil Bairwal, national co-ordinator of Association of Democratic Reforms who has filed a string of RTI applications with various Income Tax authorities to procure details of income tax returns of 22 MPs and 20 MLAs whose declared assets showed considerable increase between the two elections was stonewalled under the garb of this information falling under various sub-sections of Section 8. The Central Information Commission (CIC) on 22 November 2012 has bought more time by reserving the order in true bureaucratic style, stating it needs to study both sides of the submissions.
In his argument during the hearing on 22nd November, Mr Bairwal submitted a few glaring examples of amassment of wealth by some MPs to the CIC. These included Congress MP Naveen Jindal’s assets whose assets increased from Rs12 crore in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections to Rs118 crore during 2009 elections; BJP MP Uday Singh’s assets which increased by Rs38 crore; Congress MP Vasanth Kumar’s which increased by Rs97 crore between 2006 and 2011; BSP’s MP Nand Gopal’s by Rs79 crore between 2007 and 2012. Mr Bairwal also added that several MPs have not yet filed their income tax returns like Congress MP Karan Kaur whose assets value are around Rs128 crore and Ramnajit Singh, also of Congress, whose assets are Rs20 crore.
Earlier, the respective Public Information Officers (PIOs) had invoked Section 11 of the RTI Act and sent the information requests to some MPs under the “third party” clause seeking permission to make the information public. MPs like Kumari Selja and Ajit Singh declined permission. The PIOs replied to Mr Bairwal stating that the disclosure had no relationship with any public activity or larger public interest. All the concerned Appellate Authorities dismissed the information request stating it was was covered under Sections 8(1)(j), 8(1)(e) and 8(1)(d) of the RTI Act and hence cannot be provided. Hence, Mr Bairwal was forced to file a second appeal with the Central Information Commission.
At the CIC hearing of 22nd November, officials of the income tax department which have Congress MP Sachin Pilot, Ms Selja Kumari and Ajit Singh in their jurisdiction represented them. The officials argued that Mr Bairwal had not proved the larger public interest which is mandatory to disclose I-T returns of individuals and also supported their argument with a Supreme Court order to this effect.
Anil Bairwal and Ashok Aneja, former Chief Commissioner (I-T) argued that it was indeed a public interest issue as they were not targeting a single MP or MLA but this entire fraternity of elected representatives. Stated Mr Bairwal, “Parliamentarians are in public domain by their own choice and transparency in their working and financial operation was essential in larger public interest.”
Mr Bairwal and Mr Aneja also argued that, “the Election Commission of India (ECI), vide its order No 3/ER/2011/SDR, dated 25 February 2011, has added a new section in the affidavit for contesting candidates which makes it mandatory for them to disclose various information about the last annual I-T filed by them along with their dependents and spouse. It also asks them to disclose the total income that they reported in the last income tax that they filed. Thus the information is already in public domain.”
Mr Bairwal and Mr Aneja also quoted the the Supreme Court order of 13 March 2003 which made it mandatory for candidates contesting elections of state assemblies and Parliament to disclose their criminal and financial antecedents, by way of a sworn affidavit to be filed as an essential part of the nomination form. Supreme Court in writ petition no. 490/509/515 of 2002 observed what was held in PV Narasimha Rao Vs State (1998) 4 SCC 626); “They are the repositories of public trust. They have public duties to perform. It is borne out by experience that by virtue of the office they hold there is a real potential for misuse. The public awareness of financial position of the candidate will go a long way in forming an opinion whether the candidate, after election to the office had amassed wealth either in his own name or in the name of family members viz., spouse and dependent children. At the time when the candidate seeks re-election, the citizens/voters can have a comparative idea of the assets before and after the election so as to assess whether the high public office had possibly been used for selfaggrandizement. Incidentally, the disclosure will serve as a check against misuse of power for making quick money—a malady which nobody can deny, has been pervading the political spectrum of our democratic nation...”
Other documents submitted by Mr Bairwal included relevant press clippings, reports by ADR of Lok Sabha Elections showing disproportionate asset increase of re-contesting and re-elected candidates. Copies of the I-T returns voluntarily filed by four ministers, Ambika Soni, Subodh Kant Sahay, Ajay Maken, Pratik Patil to the Prime Minister’s Office were submitted.
Let’s wait and watch the next step of the CIC.
List of Politicians whose I-T returns have been requested:
(Vinita Deshmukh is the 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”. She can be reached at email@example.com.)
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