Deccan Herald
New Delhi

In a landmark decision that may make India’s parliamentarians more accountable and help expose unsavoury links between high-stakes business and power politics, the Central Information Commission (CIC) has ruled that pecuniary interests of MPs in various companies must be made public.

The obvious rationale behind the CIC’s decision of June 3 is to help people keep “a better watch” on parliamentarians with stakes in big business and industrial establishments. The other reason, though not explicitly reasoned out in the CIC’s order, could also prevent lobbying by big business who, as in the Nira Radia case, often times influence MPs’ positions and other policy decisions.

The CIC decision came in the wake of RTI application filed by New Delhi-based Association for Democratic Reforms National Coordinator Anil Bairwal whose plea that he be furnished with copies of statements of all current Rajya Sabha members having pecuniary interests in business houses was initially rejected by the Rajya Sabha information officer and the Upper House’s appellate authority.

The plea taken by the Rajya Sabha was that information related to House members with “remunerative directorship, regular remunerative activity, shareholding of controlling nature, paid consultancy and professional engagement” in any company “might not be provided to the public since the information was available to the secretariat in a fiduciary relationship”.

The Upper House also held that Rajya Sabha Ethics Committee (members) were not obligated to “provide such information as it was covered under the exempt category under Section 8(1)(e) of the Right to Information Act, 2005”. Yet another inexplicable reason given by the Rajya Sabha to deny information to Bairwal was that “it was personal in nature, the disclosure of which had no relationship to any public activity or interest”.

Chief Information Commissioner Satyananda Mishra’s order overturned the Rajya Sabha’s stand, saying that the CIC was “firmly of the view that the disclosure of desired information would serve a larger public interest”. According to the commission, “It is the standard practice that people in positions where they can make decisions or influence policies affecting the financial and other interests of companies should ordinarily recuse themselves from such a process, if they themselves have an interest in those specific companies or the class of enterprises, to avoid conflict of interest”.

Speaking to Deccan Herald over phone from Delhi, Bairwal said the position taken by the Rajya Sabha, which had rejected his application (first submitted two years ago) twice earlier was “against the spirit” of the RTI Act.

“What is ominous is that the Upper House’s Ethic Committee did not want to disclose information that members submit for registration in the Register of Members’ Interest under Rule 293 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Council of States”.

Bairwal said that Mishra’s order could go a long way in preventing lobbying by firms in which some MPs might hold stakes or have other pecuniary interests. The CIC’s order would then be in line with the ethics rules of the United States Congress which clearly states that “House Members...should never accept “benefits under circumstances which might be construed by reasonable persons as influencing the performance” of (their) official duties.

Besides, the House of Representatives’ Ethic Committee “found that this standard was violated, for example, when a Member persuaded the organisers of a privately held bank to sell him stock while he was using his congressional position to promote authorisation for the establishment of the bank.”

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