By Gomi Senadhira
During the last few weeks, as thousands of people gathered, all over the country denouncing the President and the Parliament, for mismanagement of the economy, in general and corruption, in particular, inside the hallowed chamber of Parliament most of the MPs were wasting the limited time allocated to them on meaningless debates. Only very few of them tried to find solutions, ones that would, at least, partly address the concerns of the protesters. If you visit Gotago Gama, you will observe that one of the main demands of the protesters is the need for public scrutiny of the assets and liabilities of the parliamentarians. The protesters claim that the politicians, because they are corrupt, deliberately avoid public scrutiny of their assets and liabilities.
Against this backdrop, it was refreshing to listen to Tharaka Balasuriya, who utilised the five minutes allocated to him, at one of the debates, to highlight the need to audit the assets and liabilities of the members of Parliament. Incidentally, he was one of the five members who published their declaration of assets and liabilities on the website of Transparency International Sri Lanka, in 2019. Others in that group were Vasudeva Nanayakkara, M.A. Sumanthiran, Vidura Wickramanayake, and Eran Wickramaratne. Later, five others joined the group. These declarations are available on the website of Transparency International Sri Lanka. Today, the protesters are demanding something more than this.
As I watched Balasuriya’s speech, on the Parliament channel, it wasn’t clear how other members responded to the proposal. It is no secret that a large number of them do not want any public scrutiny of their wealth. Fortunately, one other Parliamentarian, Weerasumana Weerasinghe, has requested that, if the MPs declarations are to be audited, his assets be audited first. He has also said that though all 225 MPs are labelled as thieves, that claim may only apply to certain individuals, in Parliament, and others don’t fall into that category. He has added that in addition to the 225 Members of Parliament, a need has arisen to audit the assets of all former and current members of Pradeshiya Sabhas and Provincial Councils, as well as those of the senior government officials.
But not all of the members of Parliament may agree with Balasuriya and Weerasinghe. For example, Dr. Susil Premajayantha, utilized the limited time allocated to him to emphasise that the members file their Assets and Liabilities every year. If anyone wants a copy, it could be obtained under RTI. What he implied was that there is no need for an audit or any further public scrutiny. If that is so, why don’t we get to know how rich or poor, our MPs are or how much they earned during the last five-year term? If I want to find out similar information on any member of the Indian Parliament, it is available publicly on many websites. The Indian Parliamentarians have opened up information on their wealth to public scrutiny as it is a voter’s fundamental right to know the relevant information regarding the candidates.
In India, it is mandatory for all candidates to submit self-sworn affidavits, giving their income-tax returns of the previous five years, offshore assets and account number details of self, spouse, dependents and Hindu Undivided Family. These affidavits are analysed by NGOs and the media. Then they provide adequate information to the public about how rich, or poor, the Indian MPs are and the wealth gained by MPs while in office. As a result, even I know that Indian “MPs are 1,400 times richer than” the average Indian (India Today), India’s “New Lok Sabha has 475 crorepati MPs” (PTI), “Five members of (Indian) Parliament grew over 1000% richer” during last Parliament (Business Standard).
Do these reports imply all Indian MPs are corrupt and income gains are due to payoffs and corruption? No. These reports caution against such assumptions. One of these studies underlines “The inflow may or may not be legitimate.” … “The inflow through legitimate means would be income from salary or business. One has to analyse individual balance sheets to understand their (MPs’) asset growth.”
For example, Konda Vishweshwar Reddy, MP from Telangana, who grew richer by Rs 366 crore since the 2014 general elections is also a successful software entrepreneur. His wealth comes from bonds, debentures, and shares in companies. Reddy, his wife, and his son hold shares of Apollo Hospitals, valued at Rs 466 crore. His wife, Sangita Reddy (daughter of Apollo Hospitals founder) is the joint managing director of Apollo Hospitals.
Then there are others, like the MP from Malda Dakshin constituency in West Bengal, one 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 a plot of land in Switzerland worth Rs 15 crore. Both of these declarations were not available in the 2014 affidavit.
These records include many other interesting revelations. In terms of percentage increase over five years (2014-19) Sumedhanand Saraswati, a BJP MP from Rajasthan, registered asset growth of 8141%. That is 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-Marxist (CPM) MP from Thipura, Sankar Prasad Datta. His wealth had increased 20 times to Rs 27 million. A Marxist crorepati, albeit at the lower end.
If anybody wants to know how rich, or poor, any of the Indian MPS are, the information is openly available on websites like Mynetha.
It is also noteworthy that in a landmark judgement in 2018, the Supreme Court of India directed the government to set up a permanent mechanism to monitor the accrual of the wealth of sitting Members of Parliament and Members of Legislative Assemblies, their spouses and associates. That ruling also points out “Their (politicians) assets and sources of income are required to be continuously monitored to maintain the purity of the electoral process and integrity of the democratic structure of this country,” and underlines “a candidate’s constitutional right to contest an election to the legislature should be subservient to the voter’s fundamental right to know the relevant information regarding the candidate.”
Why can’t the Sri Lankan electorate also get similar information on our elected representatives? Don’t we have a fundamental right to know the relevant information on our politicians? As people demand transparency, it is essential to adopt, as early as possible, laws and regulations to make assets and liabilities of elected representatives available in the public domain. The regulations could also cover, as Weerasumana Weerasinghe has demanded, in addition to Members of Parliament, all former and current members of Pradeshiya Sabhas and Provincial Councils, and senior government officials. If you go to Galle Face, you would notice this is one of the things the young people want Parliament to do urgently. This should not be a difficult task for the Honourable Members of Parliament. Honourable means people who are honest, fair, and worthy of respect. Honourable people do the right thing.
(The writer, a former Sri Lankan diplomat and a public servant, can be reached at email@example.com)