What is the fuss about? A parliamentary panel on tobacco recommended against increasing the size of pictorial warnings on tobacco products from 40 to 85 per cent. So, Health Minister J.P. Nadda said the government’s earlier decision to increase the size required deliberation by experts and that he agreed with the current recommendation of the committee. One of the members of the committee entrusted with such deliberations and paid a sitting fee per meeting plus travel and expenses out of taxpayer money is Shyama Charan Gupta, the BJP MP from Allahabad. Gupta’s profile on the website of the 16th Lok Sabha lists his profession as “businessperson”, his social activities as “social welfare through Shyam Seva Trust”, and his special interests as “setting up cottage industries”.
It turns out that the cottage industry he helped set up was Shyam Beedi, a business with an annual turnover of about Rs 250 crore and accounting for 1 to 1.5 per cent of the total beedi trade in India. Gupta’s written submission to the committee concluded that beedis contain little tobacco and, therefore, have “nil” harmful effects; that they are made from dried leaves with a “herbal effect”; and that US-funded NGOs were blaming tobacco for lifestyle diseases to kill indigenous industry and destroy Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Make in India project.
It is irrelevant for the purpose of this debate that about a million Indians die from tobacco-related causes every year. It is equally irrelevant that the livelihood of workers in the tobacco industry may or may not need to be protected. What is baffling is that a debate needs to take place at all on whether a person with significant financial interest in an industry should be allowed to be part of a committee whose recommendations have a major bearing on that very industry. Is the answer not glaringly obvious? One would have thought it was.
The UK requires MPs from both Houses to declare pecuniary interests in a “register of financial interest” as well as before debating an issue in parliament or a committee. US legislators are required to file annual disclosure statements. Canada has laid down a Conflict of Interest and Post-Employment Code, which outlines ethical standards and norms for the disclosure of the private and public interests of lawmakers. But the largest parliamentary democracy in the world doesn’t have a register of interest for members of the Lok Sabha. MPs must declare only their assets and liabilities, not their interests. The Rajya Sabha has a register of interest for its members but it is not public.
Here are the facts. On paper, an MP has to declare personal, pecuniary or direct interests in a matter before participating in House proceedings. In a division, an MP’s vote could be challenged on these grounds. However, unlike in the Rajya Sabha, where publicly available research has found three instances of members mentioning conflicts of interest before speaking in the House (Parimal Nathwani for natural gas, Karan Singh for tourism and Ram Jethmalani for black money), there are no known instances of such disclosure by Lok Sabha MPs. No declaration of pecuniary interest was made by any member of the Lok Sabha before a committee, no complaints were made to the speaker and no one has ever been removed on account of a conflict of interest.
Vijay Mallya could be part of the consultative committee on civil aviation under UPA 1 and Gupta can argue till he’s blue in the face that he’s perfectly justified in having business interests while being a lawmaker simply because there exists no specific code to address this issue. We are reduced to helplessly watching TV anchors attempt to weave moral fibre into the brazen fabric of ignorance, entitlement and lack of ethics displayed by Gupta and his ilk, who technically remain on the right side of the law.
Public life should require us to pass the proverbial “sniff test”. If it doesn’t smell right to most, it probably isn’t. But till such time our elected lawmakers sharpen their olfactory senses, Parliament needs to put in place a register, in which declarations of pecuniary interests can be recorded. One shouldn’t have to wade through tides of grey before arriving at an answer that is essentially black and white.
The writer is general secretary, West Bengal Trinamool Congress. Views are personal.