By Gomi Senadhira
Over the past few weeks, as thousands gathered across the country to denounce the President and Parliament, for mismanagement of the economy in general and corruption in particular, inside the hallowed hall of Parliament, most MPs were wasting their limited time on meaningless debates. Only very few of them have tried to find solutions, those that would respond, at least in part, to the concerns of the demonstrators. If you visit Gotago Gama, you will find that one of the main demands of the protesters is the need for public scrutiny of the assets and liabilities of parliamentarians. The protesters claim that politicians, because they are corrupt, deliberately avoid public scrutiny of their assets and liabilities.
In this context, it was refreshing to listen to Tharaka Balasuriya, who used the five minutes allotted to him, during one of the debates, to emphasize the need to audit the assets and liabilities of Members of Parliament. Incidentally, he was one of the five members who published their asset declaration on the Transparency International Sri Lanka website, in 2019. Other members of this group were Vasudeva Nanayakkara, MA Sumanthiran, Vidura Wickramanayake and Eran Wickramaratne. Later, five more joined the group. These statements are available on the Transparency International Sri Lanka website. Today’s protesters are demanding something more than that.
As I watched Balasuriya’s speech, on the Parliament Channel, I was unsure how other members had responded to the proposal. It is no secret that many of them do not want any public scrutiny of their heritage. Fortunately, another parliamentarian, Weerasumana Weerasinghe, requested that, if MPs’ statements need to be audited, his assets should be audited first. He also said that although the 225 MPs are called thieves, this statement can only apply to some people in Parliament and others do not fall into this category. He added that in addition to the 225 MPs, there was a need to verify the assets of all former and current members of the Pradeshiya Sabhas and provincial councils, as well as those of senior civil servants.
But not all MPs may agree with Balasuriya and Weerasinghe. For example, Dr. Susil Premajayantha used the limited time allotted to him to point out that members file their assets and liabilities every year. If anyone wants a copy, they can get it under RTI. What he suggested was that there is no need for an audit or other public scrutiny. If so, why don’t we know how rich or poor our MPs are or how much they have earned over the past five years? If I want to find similar information about any member of Indian Parliament, it is publicly available on many websites. Indian parliamentarians have opened information about their wealth to public scrutiny as it is a voter’s basic right to know relevant information regarding candidates.
In India, it is compulsory for all applicants to submit sworn affidavits, giving their tax returns for the previous five years, offshore assets and details of account number of self, spouse, dependents and family. Hindu undivided family. These affidavits are analyzed by NGOs and the media. Then they provide the public with adequate information about the wealth or poverty of the Indian MPs and the wealth acquired by the MPs during their tenure. As a result, even I know that “Indian MPs are 1,400 times richer than” the average Indian (India Today), “New Lok Sabha has 475 crorepati MPs” (PTI), “Five Members of Parliament (Indian ) grew more than 1000% richer” in the last legislature (Business Standard).
Do these reports imply that all Indian MPs are corrupt and revenue gains are due to bribery and corruption? No. These reports caution against such assumptions. One of these studies points out that “the influx may or may not be legitimate”. … “Inflow through legitimate means would be income from salary or business. Individual balance sheets need to be analyzed to understand the growth of their (MP) assets. »
For example, Konda Vishweshwar Reddy, MP for Telangana, who has made Rs 366 crore rich since the 2014 general election is also a successful software entrepreneur. His wealth comes from bonds, debentures and corporate stocks. Reddy, his wife and son own shares of Apollo Hospitals, valued at Rs 466 crore. His wife, Sangita Reddy (daughter of the founder of Apollo Hospitals) is the co-CEO of Apollo Hospitals.
Then there are others like the MP for Malda Dakshin constituency in West Bengal, a Chowdhury, who had increased his assets from Rs 1 crore in 2014 to Rs 27 crore in 2019. According to media reports, the increase was mainly due to the declaration of his wife’s offshore bank accounts, valued at Rs 9 crore and land in Switzerland worth Rs 15 crore. These two statements were not available in the 2014 affidavit.
These documents contain many other interesting revelations. In terms of percentage increase over five years (2014-19), Sumedhanand Saraswati, a BJP MP from Rajasthan, recorded an asset growth of 8141%. This rises from a mere Rs 34,311 in 2014 to Rs 28.27 lakh in 2019. The increase was mainly due to the declaration of a motor vehicle worth Rs 16 lakh. Another interesting revelation was that of the Communist Party of India (CPM) Marxist MP from Thipura, Sankar Prasad Datta. His fortune had been multiplied by 20 to reach Rs 27 million. A Marxist crorepati, though at the lower end.
If anyone wants to know how rich or poor any of the Indian MPs are, the information is openly available on websites like Mynetha.
It should also be noted that in a landmark 2018 judgment, the Supreme Court of India ordered the government to put in place a permanent mechanism to monitor the accumulation of wealth of sitting MPs and Members of Legislative Assemblies, of their spouses and associates. This decision also emphasizes that “their assets and sources of income (politicians) must be constantly monitored to maintain the purity of the electoral process and the integrity of the democratic structure of this country”, and underlines “the constitutional right to a candidate to contest an election to the legislature should be subject to the fundamental right of the voter to know relevant information about the candidate.
Why can’t the Sri Lankan electorate also get similar information about our elected officials? Don’t we have a fundamental right to know relevant information about our politicians? As citizens demand transparency, it is essential to adopt, as soon as possible, laws and regulations to make the assets and liabilities of elected officials available in the public domain. The regulations could also cover, as Weerasumana Weerasinghe requested, in addition to MPs, all former and current members of Pradeshiya Sabhas and provincial councils, as well as senior officials. If you go to Galle Face, you will notice that this is one of the things young people want Parliament to do urgently. This should not be a difficult task for honorable parliamentarians. Honorable means people who are honest, fair and worthy of respect. Honorable people do the right thing.
(The writer, a former Sri Lankan diplomat and civil servant, can be contacted at [email protected])