The July 31 deadline for disclosure of assets and liabilities by central government employees and senior management personnel of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) receiving government aid and foreign donations has been extended indefinitely.
The Lok Sabha cleared an amendment to the Lokpal Act without any discussion Wednesday. The Bill will be referred to a Parliamentary Standing Committee to examine Section 44 that requires public servants working with trusts, societies and NGOs, and receiving Rs 10 lakh or more from a foreign source and in excess of Rs 1 crore from the government per year, to declare assets and liabilities. Even their spouses and dependent children are required to do so.
The Opposition, however, cautioned against any move to dilute the Bill. The Standing Committee is expected to give its report in the next session of Parliament.
The Congress said it had certain objections and sources in the party said they cannot accept the clause which mandates family members of government servants and those running NGOs to declare their assets.
Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi said every viewpoint has to be considered and discussed. “It cannot be rammed down the throat of those who disagree… If the government does it, as it appears to have been doing on certain issues and certain clauses, and this government has acquired an identity of… being insensitive to concerns of NGOs… then this government will face a lot of difficulty,” he said.
The government brought the amendment to Lok Sabha though it did not figure in the business list for Wednesday. It was passed without debate two days after a group of MPs, cutting across party lines, met Prime Minister Narendra Modi to express concern over provisions in the Act.
The Indian Express reported Tuesday that the Prime Minister had assured that the last date for disclosure of assets and liabilities of trustees would be extended beyond July 31 and that the government would consult all parties to amend the Act.
Moving the amendment for consideration, Minister of State for Personnel Jitendra Singh said the government had received a number of representation from NGOs, civil society and other stakeholders expressing concern over provisions in the Lokpal Act which could adversely affect the NGO sector. The amendment, he said, pertains to Section 44 of the Lokpal Act which deals with declaration of assets and the provision of making assets public.
“Till the present impasse is overcome, the deadline with regard to government servants can be deferred,” Singh said as he moved the amendment to the Act.
It was passed by voice vote with only one MP, CPM’s Mohammad Salim, saying “no”. His contention was that the amendment, no matter what it is, should be discussed in the House, and that the government cannot describe a representation from a group of MPs as conveying the “sense of the House.” The Bill will go to Rajya Sabha for clearance.
Government sources said Modi invoked Section 12 that empowers the Prime Minister to take an emergency decision that can be approved by the Cabinet ex post facto. After he met the MPs — among them Sharad Pawar (NCP), Digvijaya Singh (Congress), Anu Aga, Naresh Gujral (SAD), Rajeev Chandrashekhar, Neeraj Shekhar (SP) — the Prime Minister had a discussion with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Ananth Kumar and senior officials.
Sources said the government is open to suggestions that spouses of government servants and NGOs could be kept out of the ambit of the Bill, considering the demands from both. Singh too indicated this: “The government is open to the idea of amending the law, and it will also depend on the recommendations of the Standing Committee. NGOs and bureaucrats have been consulted,” he told Lok Sabha.
As per rules notified under the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act 2013, every public servant shall file declaration, information and annual returns pertaining to his assets and liabilities as well as for his spouse and dependent children on March 31 every year or on or before July 31 of that year. In April, the government extended the date of filing returns by public servants from April 15 to July 31. This is the fifth extension to the deadline since the Act came into force in January 2014.
“Since this law was framed by the Standing Committee, the same (amendment) has to go to the Standing Committee… The Standing Committee is seized of the matter and I hope the Standing Committee will give its report before the next session,” Singh said, while referring it to the Committee.
Opposition MPs expressed concern that the move could be interpreted as a dilution of the Lokpal Act. Salim said since the provision is linked to corruption and benami transactions, the government should not rush because it would be seen as a move to save some including MPs. But TMC’s Sugato Bose said the government should ensure “genuine philanthropic and charitable workers are not adversely affected”.
The MPs who met the Prime Minister and other stakeholders said that many trustees were “apprehensive” that they would be subjected to harassment and extortion, and that some had even resigned from their positions to avoid this. This could deprive many NGOs from receiving guidance from credible and experienced trustees, they said.
The MPs pointed out that in any case all such NGOs have detailed disclosure requirements, including public disclosure of audited annual accounts and annual filing to Income Tax authorities. The bureaucrats expressed concern that the law required their spouses, who could be working in the private sector or do not have anything to do with public service, to make assets public.