Smoke Screen

Why the tobacco row isn't surprising: conflicts of interest have never bothered our Parliament

MPs are disallowed from becoming members of parliamentary panels that scrutinise matters related to their personal interests. But nobody in Parliament looks too closely at this rule.

The recent controversial remarks by Bharatiya Janata Party MPs on tobacco use have turned the spotlight on a seven-year-old parliamentary report which had addressed a gamut of issues regarding the conduct of lawmakers, including that of conflict of interest.

Prepared by a special committee inquiring into the misconduct of Lok Sabha members, the report was submitted to the Speaker in 2008, but has received little attention while its recommendations are yet to be implemented.

Had the panel’s suggestions on a code of conduct for parliamentarians been implemented, MPs would be denied membership of parliamentary standing committees scrutinising matters related to their business or personal interests.

Dealing specifically with the issue of conflict of interest, the report had said: “The Committee members are of the view that a provision may be made to the effect that if a member has a personal, pecuniary or direct interest on any subject/matter, he should not be nominated in the first place to the Departmentally Related Standing Committee, which normally examines such subjects/matters.”

Headed by former Union minister, V Kishore Chandra Deo, the committee had suggested that lawmakers should declare their assets and business interests, which should be recorded in a special register to be maintained by the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha secretariats. It was proposed that members should furnish information regarding five pecuniary interests: Remunerative Directorship, Regular Remunerated Activity, Shareholding of Controlling Nature, Paid Consultancy, Professional/Engagement.

“When the committees were set up, nobody thought or expected that MPs would conceal their personal details and get on the panels related to their business interests,” Deo told Scroll.in. “Now that it is happening, the rules should be suitably amended.”

Rules are clear

Former Lok Sabha Speaker Shivraj Patil, who had initiated the system of parliamentary standing committees, said it is for the Speaker to take a call on these issues. “In any case, the committee chairperson can unilaterally disallow the participation of members in any discussion or a vote if he has information of an MP’s business or personal interest in the matter under consideration,” Patil explained.

The Deo committee had also suggested that members should be required to disclose their interests during the proceedings in the House and committees when a connected issue comes up for discussion. It was also recommended that MPs make this disclosure in their communication with ministers and government departments. The committee further said that a member shall not vote in the House or in a committee in which he has a “direct pecuniary or personal interest”.

In fact, the Lok Sabha rules state that the “vote of a member can be challenged on the ground of personal, pecuniary or direct interest and can even be disallowed by the Speaker if, in his opinion, it has been validly challenged”.

Similarly, rules also state that objections can be raised regarding the “inclusion of a member in a Parliamentary Committee on the ground that the member has a personal, pecuniary or direct interest of such an intimate character that it may prejudicially affect the consideration of any matters to be considered by the Committee”. If satisfied, the Speaker can end his membership of the concerned committee.

But experience shows that all these recommendations and rules have proved to be ineffective.

Host of popular panels

Members do not volunteer to disclose their business and personal interests and these are often ignored even when they are well-known. In many cases, MPs lobby furiously with the concerned parliamentary affairs committee to become members of committees which deal with matters relating to their business interests as they are placed in an advantageous position of influencing future policies and getting prior information on government proposals and decisions.

Among the parliamentary panels which are in demand include those dealing with the ministries of finance, energy, environment, power, coal, mines and information technology. The Committee on Public Undertakings is a favourite with members who have business dealings with public sector undertakings.

The committee on subordinate legislation, which is mandated to see that the rules prepared by the executive are in sync with the law passed by Parliament, is also sought by those seeking to further their business interests as there they are in a position to tinker with the rules. “The rules are crucial as the devil is always in the detail,” remarked a NDA minister who did not wish to be named. “There is huge potential for exploitation here.”

In fact, the latest controversy over the decision to increase the size of pictorial warnings on cigarette packs was triggered in the committee on subordinate legislation when its chairman and BJP MP Dilip Gandhi rejected the proposal, saying that tobacco use does not cause cancer. His views were endorsed by another committee member and BJP MP Shyama Charan Gupta who happens to be a “beedi baron”.

The list goes on

There are several other such instances. For example, Samajwadi Party MP Chandrapal Singh Yadav is a member of the parliamentary standing committee on chemicals and fertilisers while he is the chairman of Kribhco, a fertiliser company. In another case, Biju Janata Dal MP Kalpataru Das, whose son runs a mineral transport business in Odisha, was a member of the select committee which scrutinised the mining bill recently. Rajya Sabha MP Vijay Darda, owner of the Lokmat group of newspapers, is a member of the committee on information technology, which also deals with the information and broadcasting ministry.

But this is not new development. Vijay Mallya, owner of the now defunct Kingfisher Airlines, was a member of the committee on civil aviation, BJP member PB Kore, Janata Dal (Secular) MP MAM Ramaswamy, and DR Meghe of the Congress were on the standing committee on health when they were reportedly involved in the management of medical colleges. Venture capitalist Rajeev Chandrasekhar has been a member of the committee on finance.

The all-important Committee on Public Undertakings was embroiled in a controversy in 2009 following complaints that three of its members were using their position to further their business interests. All the three MPs – T Subbarami Reddy and Lagadapati Rajagopal of the Congress and Nama Nageswara Rao from the Telugu Desam Party – had business dealings with PSUs.

Now that the issue of MPs having conflict of interest is centre stage once again, it will have to be seen if the Deo committee report will eventually be implemented.

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