Updated: July 29, 2016 12:43:58 am
What happened in Lok Sabha with regard to the 2013 Lokpal law this week?
With industry lobby groups, bureaucrats and even Parliamentarians pressuring the government to review Section 44 of the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013, Prime Minister Narendra Modi invoked Section 12 of The Government of India (Transaction of Business) Rules — the provision that gives him powers to take an emergency decision, to be approved by the Cabinet ex post facto — to bring in an amendment to the Act. This amendment Bill was not listed in Wednesday’s business, but was circulated to MPs just before its introduction in Lok Sabha. Section 44 deals with the declaration of assets and liabilities of “public servants” — defined as a range of persons including the Prime Minister, Ministers, MPs, and officials of the government or of any organisation, trust or NGO that gets Rs 10 lakh as foreign aid or Rs 1 crore as government aid. The declaration, in respect of the public servant, his/her spouse and dependent children, was to have been filed “with the competent authority, on or before the 31st July of every year”. The amendment passed by voice vote on Wednesday said the form and manner of declaration would be laid out in the future — in effect, the deadline for declaring assets and liabilities was extended indefinitely, and declarations will now have to be made only after the government comes up with fresh amendments to the Act. Meanwhile, the Parliamentary Standing committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice, which had studied the Bill, will assess it again, suggest changes to Section 44, and submit its report by the next session of Parliament. The panel is expected to define “public servant” further.
Why are civil society activists opposed to this section, and why has industry body CII felt constrained to express concern over it?
Industry lobby groups and trusts, as well as the NGOs that are either aided by the government or get money under FCRA want the definition of “public servant” revised. Under Section 14 (i) (h) of the Lokpal Act, “public servant” includes “any person who is or has been a director, manager, secretary or other officer of every other society or association of persons or trust (whether registered under any law for the time being in force or not) in receipt of any donation from any foreign source under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010 in excess of ten lakh rupees in a year or such higher amount as the Central Government may, by notification, specify”. The CII argued that “unnecessary intervention” by the government would create disruptions in the working of trusts, societies, charitable and non-profit organisations. In a representation to the government, CII said a large number of these bodies, as well as hospitals and educational institutions, are served by philanthropists and professionals, and “the provision of intimating asset details will discourage senior philanthropists and social workers from participating in social development services”. It also said that the expression “wholly or partly financed by the Government” in Section 14 (i) (g) was ambiguous. NGOs and civil society groups have expressed apprehension that the insistence on declaration of assets and liabilities is a way to harass them and shackle their activities, and said that describing them as “public servants” is a “joke”.
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And what is the position taken by the political parties?
A group of MPs including Sharad Pawar (NCP), Digvijaya Singh (Congress), Anu Aga (Nominated, Rajya Sabha), Naresh Gujral (SAD), Rajeev Chandrasekhar (Independent, Rajya Sabha), Neeraj Shekhar (SP), T K Rangarajan (CPM) and D Raja (CPI) met the Prime Minister on July 25. They requested that the deadline be extended beyond July 31, presented the fears and apprehensions of the NGOs and other stakeholders, and argued that this could deprive many NGOs from receiving guidance from credible and experienced trustees. They pointed out that in any case, all NGOs have detailed disclosure requirements, including public disclosure of audited annual accounts and annual filings to I-T authorities. The leaders told the PM that while the government should take strong action against NGOs that were corrupt, painting all NGOs with the same brush would weaken the entire voluntary sector. Moving the amendment on Wednesday, the government said the Lokpal Act had been passed after long debates, and parties must now discuss the amendments to it in detail. Besides, the PM had promised he would consult all parties.
But does this mean the provisions of the landmark law are likely to be diluted?
Although the extension of the last date for filing details of assets and liabilities cannot be considered as a dilution, the deadline does stand extended indefinitely. Interestingly, in December 2014, a Bill to amend the 2013 Act was introduced in Lok Sabha, which sought to modify the provision on declaration of assets. Public servants were required to file information on movable and immovable property owned, inherited, acquired or held on lease in their or another’s names, and on debts and liabilities incurred directly or indirectly by them. The Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice studied the Bill and submitted its report on December 3, 2015, recommending that public servants should declare their assets and liabilities to the competent authority, which should then be forwarded to the Lokpal to be kept in fiduciary capacity. The panel also said that family members of public servants are not bound to disclose assets acquired either through their own income, or inherited.
So what happens in this matter now?
The amendment Bill, passed on Wednesday by Lok Sabha, was approved by Rajya Sabha too on Thursday. Now, once the Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice submits its report by the next session of Parliament, the government will draft a new amendment Bill and bring it to Parliament again. The Bill will be debated in both Houses, and will have to be passed by both.
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