Officials have to list every asset they own, including their investment portfolio and cash in hand
A major deadline is looming for the 5 million or so bureaucrats in the Indian government. They have to file returns declaring all their assets by September 15 under the new anti-corruption Lokpal law. Irrespective of the seniority of a government official, he or she has to now provide a complete list of the assets and liabilities of the immediate family, including his wife and dependent children. This declaration would have to be completed annually by July 31 from next year.
According to Hindustan Times (HT), unlike the property returns that middle and senior officials were required to file earlier, the new five-page forms require every employee to list out every asset owned by them, including their investment portfolio, as well as cash in hand.
The Department of Personnel and Training – which was tasked with specifying the form to use – reportedly decided to adopt the form that the Election Commission requires election candidates to fill. It announced the new rules last week and announced the September 15 deadline for the first return.
According to the form, officials need to declare any motor vehicles, aircraft, yachts or ships, gold and silver jewellery and bullion possessed by them, their spouses and dependent children.
“Politicians hire chartered accountants to fill such a form. How do we do it?” complained one official of director rank.
The only relaxation is that government officials do not have to list assets if their value is less than four months of their basic pay, or Rs. 2 lakhs ($3,333), whichever is higher.
Another official complained to HT that this requirement was an invasion of their privacy, as the Lokpal law requires the assets’ details to be placed in the public domain.
Nearly 15 million pages of financial information are expected over the next two weeks. An official who has handled anti-corruption issues in the past said he doubted if anyone would have the time, energy or mandate to scrutinise details spread across millions of pages.
But government officials do need to be careful when they fill the form. If they fail to mention an asset that is then detected later, it will be presumed to have been acquired “by corrupt means”.
According to the Times of India (TOI), some officials’ wives have reportedly refused to share details of their jewellery, claiming they are not covered by the Lokpal. Their poor husbands are reportedly at their wits’ end and could end up asking the government for clarification.
The same reporter mentioned that the "more intelligent" officials may over-invoice the quantity of jewellery they currently possess, so that they could add to it in the years ahead without any growth in assets being noticed.
Yet the Modi administration has emphasised transparency and anti-corruption. After taking charge in May, its ministers were asked to declare their assets, continuing a tradition that the previous UPA regime had put in place. The new ministers were asked to submit all their details within two months, and also sever any business links or interests.
It is now the turn of the bureaucrats to fall in line. Earlier this month, 19 new commandments were included in the four-decade old service rules for bureaucrats: they must be politically neutral, take decisions on merit, and be fair and impartial.
Hopefully they will also be fair and impartial when filing their own returns.