FE Editorial : Whistle of accountability

Written by The Financial Express | Updated: Aug 29 2009, 02:59am hrs
From the point of view of institutional transparency, this week has seen three notable developments so far: Supreme Court judges have finally agreed to make details of their financial assets public; the government has finalised a new law aimed at protecting whistleblowers; and the PM made a speech arguing that the malaise of corruption must be treated immediately and effectively, otherwise it will continue to impede our economic growth. While these developments are part of whats clearly work in progress, they point to a positive trend towards transparency that we applaud. To begin with the Supreme Court, Karnataka High Court Justice DV Shylendra Kumar, writing in The Indian Express last week, had openly dissented against the chief justice of Indias stand on declaration of assets, which hitherto amounted to saying there is no provision in the Constitution or in law requiring the apex courts judges to declare their assets. Now, a meeting between the 23 judges of the countrys highest court (which has eight vacancies at present) has yielded a landmark decision to voluntarily publish their financial assets on the Supreme Courts website. It is expected that high court judges will follow suit. This is surely a milestone move, but it still leaves the Judges (Declaration of Assets & Liabilities) Bill in media res. The introduction of that Bill had recently faced cross-party opposition in Parliament based on its confidentiality clauses that, among other things, gave judges immunity against an inquiry. Critics were especially concerned that the Bill violated the RTI Act. Those concerns have in some part been addressed by the judges initiative to make voluntary disclosures. But this doesnt excuse the executive from initiating a law to this effect.

For a country whose institutions are accustomed to withholding rather than imparting information, the RTI Act marks a giant step forward. In less than half a decade, the Act has transformed citizen expectations. Of the many initiatives announced in a matching direction, a memorable one was the Presidents June 4 address to the Lok Sabha in which she promised a public data policy that would put all non-strategic information in the public domain, including an independent evaluation office for flagship programmes that would operate at an objective arms length from the government. The so-called whistleblowers can play an important role in exposing all that escapes todays increased public scrutiny, which is what makes the Public Interest Disclosure (Protection of Informers) Bill, 2009, significant. It promises to protect the identities of people who file complaints against central government employees and institutions. Ones only problem is that Union ministers are reportedly outside the purview of the proposed law. Why