Friday, September 04, 2009

Assets Disclosure of Government Servants and Councillors

I have been purusing the case of assets disclosure of Government Servants, People's Representatives and to a lesser extent, of Judges. A good news that came in yesterday was that Madras High Court Judges have decided that they will make their assets public. A report can be seen here. Though the story ends well in case of Judges, there is some struggle ahead with getting the assets statements of people's elected representatives, and Government servants. In the last few weeks, there has been progress on my efforts on Government Servants.

On the issue of assets disclosure of Government servants, I had filed an RTI with 4-5 departments and regarding IAS and IPS officers, asking WHETHER they had filed their assets statements. A couple of them refused. One department said that there were no violations at all, but refused to give any numbers. Another department said that the practice was not being followed and that it will soon be taken up. All these cases came up for hearing. And the Chief Commissioner ordered them all to give me information within two weeks. But there were some interesting aspects of the hearings.

The PIO of the Public Department (which is the most high profile department in the secretariat) initially said that these were personal information. The Chief Commissioner said that the personal clause wont hold here, since I had asked only for WHETHER assets statements have been submitted or not. He also mentioned that even assets of government servants have to be disclosed. And before I could heave a sigh of relief for that statement, he added that assets statements of IAS and IPS officers alone need not be disclosed since they are submitted in sealed covers. This stuck to me as odd. When everybody else (like Governmnet Servants, Politicians and even Judges) have to disclose assets what is special about IAS and IPS officers. Though this was not relevant to the hearing on hand, I have an appeal related to an RTI application I had filed asking for inspection of assets declration statements of the Chief Secretary and the Secretaries of 10 other departments. And if I dont get my arguments ready for that hearing, there is a good chance that I might lose the case, since the Chief Commissioner thinks that sealed covers is a good reason for non disclosure of information. I have made some enquiries on that and will put it down as a separatepost.

An RTI filed in November revealed that revealed that 25 of the 155 (16%) Chennai Corporation councillors have furnished their Assets Declaration Statements which they should do annually. The full details are available here. After a report of this was out in the Hindu, the Mayor of Chennai Corporation (who himself was a defaulter) promised that he would ensure that everybody filed their assets declaration statements. After this I filed an RTI in May to find out what the present status was, and to see whether the Mayor has kept up his word. This RTI showed that after that initial RTI and the report in the Hindu, a circular was sent out to all the councillors to file their returns of the last two years and so far 96 councillors (61%) have submitted their returns. There are still close to 60 councillors who have still not submitted their returns. But when I first filed the RTI application, I had asked for details of the councillors of the previous council too. This was not give to me. I had filed a second appeal for which hearing happened on September 3. In this the PIO promised that she will give me the details I had asked for within 2 weeks time. That will throw some light on the levels of disclosure of the previous council too.

Moreover, I had also asked for inspection of the assets declaration statements. This was rejected by the PIO, saying that it was personal information, so I had filed a first appeal. This too came up at the hearing, when the PIO raised this. I told the commissioner that this was a separate RTI application, and so the Commissioner refused to discuss it. But talking about it with the PIO, outside the hearing, she told me that her seniors had asked her to cite the personal information clause in rejecting the RTI application. I told her that I also filed a first appeal and that there was no reply, she said that she will consult with her seniors and give me a reply.

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