Are senior officials promoting opaque functioning responsible for emerging malfunctions
By MM Ansari
A democratically formed government has to be the principal enabler of transparent functioning of the public institutions and its employees to promote accountability and to contain corruption. A directive from the very top echelons of the government is therefore imperative to strengthen institutions responsible for promoting transparency and accountability to contain the scourge of corruption.
The Central government under the Prime Minister Narendra Modi has however done very little to ensure openness in the functioning of the government, which is why a number of corruption cases, as discussed below, have recently been reported. We may examine whether the government’s top officials have vested interest in promoting corruption?
In a written reply to a question in the Lok Sabha, the Minister of State for Personnel, Public Grievances, Jitendra Singh revealed on July 18, 2018 that as many as 617, 673 and 632 cases of corruption were registered by Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in 2015, 2016 and 2017, respectively. During January to June 2018, at least 314 cases were registered. CBI has separately admitted that it has registered as many as 26 cases against its own employees, who are allegedly involved in cases of bribery, illegal and unethical practices.
A high and rising corruption in government is attributable to lack of effective implementation of Right to Information Act to promote transparency and accountability in the functioning of the government; and the tacit support provided by the very top-level leaderships in the loot of public money. We shall examine them in seriatim:
Non-compliance of mandatory disclosures u/s 4 of RTI Act: All the government departments are required under section 4 of the RTI Act to disclose specified information through both print and electronic media to allow for easy access to information and to encourage probity in all public actions. It is observed from the disclosures on websites of the Central ministries and department that almost all of them have not complied with mandatory disclosures. In the digital age, neither are the websites properly constructed nor are the information and data regularly revised and updated. Even when applications for seeking specific information are filed under the provision of the RTI Act, complete and authentic information is not supplied within the stipulated period.
For instance, Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) was directed by Central Information Commission (CIC) and later by Supreme Court in 2011 to provide evaluated answer sheets as per the provisions of the RTI Act, instead of charging an amount of Rs. 1000 and Rs.1200 for 10th and 12th standard students. Supreme Court held that the students have the fundamental and legal right to access their evaluated answer-sheets under the Right to Information Act. Yet, CBSE has not complied it. Now, a contempt plea has been filed in the Court. The Supreme Court, on September 10, 2018, issued notice to the CBSE on a plea seeking contempt action against the board for allegedly disobeying the top court’s order and charging exorbitant fees from students for obtaining copies of evaluated answer-sheets.
Likewise, CIC directed the University of Delhi to provide information relating to score of marks obtained by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who passed out in 1978 from the University, which has refused to provide the information sought. The relevant CIC order has been challenged in High Court of Delhi. It is important to note that in a press conference, convened on May 10, 2016, the Party leaders, namely Amit Shah and Arun Jaitly have disclosed the copy of graduation degree awarded to Modi. And, educational institutions conventionally display the outcomes of examinations, without resorting to any secrecy law.
Clearly, the public authorities refuse to function in a transparent manner, which is why they have not complied with requirements as stipulated in RTI Act, even when directed by the competent authorities.
For instance, certain vital information, such as listed below, is not displayed on the official websites of the different government departments. And, the missing information falls in the following categories:
- Decision-making process, the delegation of powers, duties, and responsibilities of officials and the system of compensation paid to them;
- Minutes of meetings of various committees and boards, details of the relevant Acts, rules, instruments, manuals, office orders, custodians of various categories of documents held by the organization;
- Policy on transfer and posting of senior officers deployed at important and sensitive places;
- RTI applications and appeals received and their responses, details of Public Information Officers, Appellate Authority, Nodal Officer and other facilities available to citizens for obtaining information;
- Details of domestic and foreign visits undertaken by the senior officials;
- Details of the mechanism to redress grievances of affected persons, mainly employees, clients, and customers;
- Discretionary and Non-discretionary Grants and details of the beneficiaries of subsidy;
- Sources and methods of funding political parties or identification of donors; and,
- Details about Public-Private Partnerships and outcomes of such ventures.
In effect, the RTI Act has not been implemented in letter and spirit. Information that should be in the public domain is not, which hints at the perpetuation of ‘the culture of secrecy’ by the bureaucracy and the political leadership. Lack of transparency jeopardizes the effective functioning of democratic institutions that protect the Constitutional rights of people. people are therefore unduly deprived of the opportunity of making informed decisions in matters of participatory development. And, therefore, corruption is rampant, as discussed below.
Lack of Government’s Commitment for Containing Corruption:
The intention of the political leadership and bureaucracy is not to voluntarily disclose information. In many cases, information seekers have been harassed or information has been denied without citing reasonable grounds. For example, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has declined to share action taken report on a letter written in July this year by a Congress leader Ajay Singh to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which alleged large-scale corruption through e-tendering in Madhya Pradesh.
The CIC has also not been able to secure justice for the information seekers due to the lackadaisical attitude of political leaders and bureaucrats, as is also evident from the following.
Electoral Bonds and Opaqueness in Funding Political Parties: Section 4(1)(c) of the Act has mandated that every public authority shall “publish all relevant facts while formulating important policies or announcing decisions which affect public”. Yet, the Finance Minister Arun Jaitley steered the adoption of an opaque political funding mechanism, namely the instrument of ‘Electoral Bonds’, without due consultations with all the stakeholders. In spite of several valid objections from individuals and institutions, including political parties, against the adoption of the policy on Electoral Bonds, the government did not incorporate the feedback obtained from the public. Clearly, the decision-making process lacks transparency due to which the political party in power has been able to garner a huge amount of donations from unknown sources. As the identity of the donor as well as recipient party is kept a secret under the scheme of Electoral Bonds, this becomes the root cause of corruption. The donors, mainly corporate and individuals obviously seek favours that result in all kinds of corrupt practices at the costs of public exchequer and the poor. Consider the following cases of top-level political support to rich individuals and Corporators.
In June this year, it was revealed by the Reserve Bank of India that Public sector banks have resorted to write-offs or compromise settlements worth over Rs 3 lakh crore to reduce their bad loan burden in the past four years and nine months, the financial year 2013-14 and December 2017. The beneficiaries have however not been identified. It is suspected that most beneficiaries are donors to political parties at the costs of taxpayers’ money.
There is another case of tacit support to certain groups or individuals. The Ahmedabad District Cooperative Bank (ADCB), of which BJP President Amit Shah was a Director, secured deposits of Rs. 745.59 crore of demonetized currency in five days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the demonetization announcement on November 8, 2016. All the district cooperative banks were banned from accepting deposits of the banned currency notes from the public after November 14, 2016 on fears that black money would be laundered through this route.
The purpose of the RTI legislation to promote openness in the functioning of government is thus defeated. This cannot happen without the support of top political leadership.
Why Political Parties do not come under the ambit of RTI Act: In response to several appeals made by civil society organization, CIC has already declared that the political parties are a public authority to be covered under the ambit of the RTI Act so that the sources and methods of their funding could be duly identified, scrutinized and accounted for. However, political parties have connived and cooperated among themselves to evade disclosure of collection and utilization of funds, which in effect becomes a source of influencing political decision to favour the donors at the costs of innocent majority of citizens and the national interests.
The major political parties, whether they are in power to rule or sit in opposition, are the beneficiary of corrupt practices and scandalous activities, such as, defense deals. For instance, there are widely reported cases of alleged corruption in defense deals, particularly in the purchase and procurement of Bofors guns, Augusta helicopters, and Rafael jets. In these infamous deals, the names of former PM Rajiv Gandhi, former Air Marshal Tyagi and PM Modi are linked. On the pretext of national security, almost total ‘secrecy’ has been maintained by the government to protect the persons associated with the alleged payment of bribe money between the foreign suppliers of defense equipment and highest levels Indian officials, who have allegedly been bribed. Such is the conduct and behaviour of the government for ignoring transparency laws for encouraging corruption in public life.
Why was CBI excluded from the ambit of RTI: The Centre issued a notification dated June 9, 2011, whereby CBI was included in the second Schedule to claim absolute secrecy or exemption from disclosure of information under RTI Act, without the sanction of the law or approval of the Parliament. The government’s move was intended to curb transparency and accountability from the investigations of several corruption cases against high ranking Government officers.
When a large number of corruption cases were exposed during the RTI regime beginning from 2005, and CBI’s credibility in matters of fair and objective investigations was questioned by the information literate civil society, the then government considered it expedient to exclude CBI from the ambit of RTI. The vested groups across the political parties provided tacit support on the basis of which the government acted fast to exclude CBI in 2011 from the purview of RTI so that the corrupt officials and political leaders could be protected.
The political leadership that stalled the functioning of the Parliament, mainly on issues of rampant corruption, did not vehemently opposed the Government’s move for shielding CBI from disclosure of information, which was responsible for investigating corruption cases against the senior members of different political parties and other officials facing charges under the cases of disproportionate incomes.
Now, CBI is alleged to have diluted the order for arresting Vijay Mallya who has willfully failed to pay the loan of over Rs. 9000 crores to different Banks and fled to the United Kingdom, after due intimation to the Finance Minister, Arun Jaitly. It is also alleged that SBI did not approach the Supreme Court for appropriate direction to impound Vijay Mally’s passport so as to stop him from leaving the country. There is thus a reason to believe that with the tacit support of the senior government officials, Vijay Mally and many others facing similar charges could leave the country. This has been possible because of opacity in the functioning of government. And, CBI has deliberately been excluded from the ambit of RTI Act so that applications for seeking information under the provisions of the Act can be easily neglected.
The nexus between CBI officials and other culprits has never been ruled out since a number of CBI officials are implicated in corruption cases. Earlier, a close nexus between the accused persons and the officials of the CBI, who investigated the cases in which the alleged culprits were implicated, was revealed by the disclosure of CBI’s Director’s diary. In January this year, the Supreme Court expressed its displeasure at the speed with which the CBI was investigating the case against Ranjit Sinha, who was implicated in the case.
CIC Enforcing Implementation of Provision of the Act: CIC lacks institutional and government support, which is why political parties and CBI are out of purview of the Act. And at times the public authorities that enjoy the support of top political leadership do not obey the direction of Supreme Court also, as discussed above.
CIC is therefore ineffective in enforcing the implementation of various provisions of the Act, as it hesitantly and reluctantly uses its powers to impose mandatory penalty of Rs. 25,000 on the information provider and/or awards compensation to information seekers under Sections 20(1) and 19(8)(b) of the Act, respectively. Unfortunately, citizens are discouraged to question the lack of responsiveness of public authorities. the information seekers are harassed, humiliated and even eliminated for alleged vexatious applications for information.
The prevailing socio-cultural and politico-economic scenario of the country indicates very little progress in creating a corruption-free society due to lack of commitment of the top-level political leadership. This has serious repercussions not only for promoting participatory development process but also for attracting domestic and foreign investments for economic growth and job creation. Leakages of investible resources due to rampant corrupt practices or ineffective regulatory arrangements, don’t guarantee value for money, apart from diverting economic benefits away from target groups. Therefore, promotion of transparency and accountability in letter and spirit is a sine qua non for ensuring good governance. Are the top echelons of the government willing to curb corruption?