9 days ago

Asset disclosure by government servants

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Following recent reports of wealth scams involving government servants, the High Court has directed the government to ensure submission of wealth statements by government officials and their family members. The court has also asked for a progress report on this within three months. What some might find odd, even shockingly disturbing about the matter is the very issue of asset disclosure by government officials, because while it is mandatory for them to submit asset statements according to government servants' conduct rules, there has been minimal effort to enforce the practice. This clearly highlights the longstanding failure of the authorities responsible, prompting intervention by the High Court. It is disheartening that such failure necessitates action from the country's highest court, as it should primarily be the responsibility of the respective authorities to address such issues.

Looking at the respective provision of the aforesaid rule, it is clear that the state machinery is least concerned about its compliance. According to the provision of the rule, government servants at the time of their entry into government jobs has to make a declaration, through designated official channel, of all immovable and movable assets, including shares, certificates, securities, insurance policy, and so on held by them or members of their families. In addition, the rule stipulates  that he or she shall submit to the government, an annual return of assets in the month of December showing any increase or decrease in assets shown in the declaration. The HC passed the orders after hearing a writ petition that lists recent divulging of fabulous assets of a number of serving and retired officials. During the hearing, the court observed that corruption and money laundering remained as a big barrier to development and hence stopping the misdeeds was extremely crucial. Meanwhile, the Anti-Corruption Commission is reportedly engaged in unearthing huge wealth of a few of those whose names recently came up in press reports.

Accumulating wealth through legal and transparent means is not subject to question. However, concealing wealth with hidden intentions is criminal-not just for cheating the state of required taxes but for the manner (dishonest, to say the least) in which wealth accumulation took place. This underscores the necessity for asset disclosure at the beginning of one's career and annual financial statements to ensure that transparency is regulated effectively. Unfortunately, in spite of rules in force for long, this has not been the practice here. It is commonly alleged that absence of any potentially effective scanner has opened floodgates of corruption in almost every nook and cranny of the state agencies nurturing a culture of impunity and unaccountability.

Now, following the HC ruling, can one hope that the government will sit up to do the needful? Failure to comply with the ruling will constitute contempt of court. The onus thus is on the government to devise a clear and simple mechanism to implement the relevant provision of the government servants' conduct rules. No doubt, the HC order is a positive and time-befitting move in an attempt to steer things right. The rest depends on how the government works it out.

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