The Lokpal and Lokayukta Act, 2013, legislated by the then UPA government overzealously included senior management personnel working with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the definition of “public servants” requiring them to disclose their assets and liabilities if their NGO receive foreign donations and funds from the Union government. It didn’t stop there. The personnel’s spouse and dependent children too were required to furnish such details.
These persons, now that they are public servants, could be prosecuted under the Prevention of Corruption Act for non-compliance. The act kicked in following a June 24 notification by the government, and requires disclosures by July 31. This is perhaps the worst case of a public policy swinging between extremes when legislated in a hurry and in an environment of distrust and anger. A perception of rising corruption during the UPA’s second term and the consequent high-decibel protests led by Anna Hazare forced the government to legislate the lokpal act.
Unfortunately, in a bid to be seen as cracking down on those who swindle public money or resources, it introduced provisions which are draconian.
A clear and irreversible course being followed by India since the beginning of economic reforms in 1991 has been to do away with the tyranny of red tape and inspector raj. In as much, the direction has also been to encourage enterprises and individuals alike to invest their precious and finite resources — time and money — in areas including health and education where the government has not met the needs of the country’s poor. Nobody disputes the need for transparency and adequate disclosure by organisations that are recipients of public money.
The lokpal act brings under its purview any NGO wholly or partly funded by the Union government to the extent of Rs one crore or more and has received Rs 10 lakh or more in foreign donations. But the provisions of the act stretch in a manner that not only intrude into the privacy of individuals, but also provides the leeway for officials to harass people. Overregulation may not only stifle the voluntary sector but also force volunteers and donors to stay away. Many trustees, directors and professional managers in NGOs, who could be philanthropists, experts and eminent persons from different walks of life, wouldn’t want their assets and liabilities loosely posted on government websites.
A group of parliamentarians cutting across party lines met the prime minister on Monday, who has promised an extension of the July 31 deadline. But the prime minister must also ensure that the lokpal act does not end up smothering a vibrant civil society when the government sets out to monitor and regulate NGOs that receive huge funds.