The idea of enforcing ethical standards in the functioning of our MPs was thought of 17 years ago by a Committee of the Lok Sabha. Yet, Parliament seems to be reluctant to take firm steps in this regard, although the absence of such standards has contributed substantially to the declining image of MPs.
A case in point is the opening of Register of Members’ Interests and incorporating rules that bind an MP to declare his or her interest while participating in debates in parliament and in its committees. This is needed in order to prevent MPs from using their offices to further their pecuniary or business interests. MPs in the UK, USA, Australia are strictly governed by these rules for several decades.
While the Rajya Sabha introduced this eight years ago, the Lok Sabha, which comprises of directly elected members, has been dragging its feet on the issue.  This is ironic because it was the Committee of Privileges of the Lok Sabha that made the recommendation in 1996. This committee’s recommendations were in line with the best practices prevailing in democracies at that time. The Lok Sabha accepted this committee’s suggestions, appointed a Committee of Ethics and even adopted the Code of Conduct drafted by that committee.  But, we have not seen much progress after that. For example, the Ethics Committee said citizens should be empowered to complain about unethical conduct of representatives and that the Speaker may refer the same to the committee for inquiry. Secondly, as in the UK and US, a Register of Members’ Interests must be opened and all members must be directed to disclose their assets and liabilities and interests.
However, now there is a ray of hope because the Committee of Ethics of the Lok Sabha has recently made a firm recommendation that the House open a Register of Members.   

Last year, the committee decided to examine the issue of maintenance of a register of interests of members of the House and declaration of such interests in the House or in committees of the House. The issue was taken up by the committee following a representation by the Association for Democratic Rights (ADR), an organization that has been doing in-depth study of the electoral process and the working of democratic bodies. ADR wrote to the Speaker and drew her attention to the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Rajya Sabha, which stipulate that a Register of Members Interests’ be opened and Members called upon to declare their interests. So, they urged the Speaker to incorporate similar provisions in the Lok Sabha’s Rules of Procedure. Given the number of corruption charges and scandals against Members of Parliament, introduction of such a Register of Interest in the Lok Sabha “would bring more transparency in the background of elected representatives and in the entire electoral and political processes of the country”, they argued. The Speaker referred this to the Committee of Ethics of the House.
The ADR memorandum argued that though there were provisions in the Lok Sabha Rules did not specify that the House maintain a Register of Members Interest. Further, there was also no specific provision directing members to declare their interests. The Rules of Procedure of the Rajya Sabha, on the other hand, provide for creation of such a register. It also says that the Register of Members’ Interests should be available to members for inspection. The information contained in the Register “may be given to the general public” as per rules determined by the committee.
The Committee of Ethics of the Rajya Sabha has identified five specific pecuniary interests which warranted declaration by MPs. They are Remunerative Directorship, Regular Remunerated Activity, Shareholding of Controlling Nature, Paid Consultancy and Professional Engagement, The committee also prepared a format in which the interests should be registered and said every member should declare his or her interests within ninety days of taking the oath as a member of the House. It said any changes should be notified within the first quarter of the next financial year.
After examining the issue, the Committee of Ethics of the Lok Sabha said it had carefully considered the provisions pertaining to registration of members' interest obtaining in UK, USA, Australia and South Africa. It said similar provisions must be made in the Lok Sabha. It said Members of Lok Sabha should get their interests registered in a Register to be maintained by the Lok Sabha. Further, whenever a member has personal or specific pecuniary interest (direct or indirect) in a matter being considered by the House or a Committee thereof, he should declare that interest notwithstanding any registration of his interests in the Register. “Thus, while registration of interests pertains to the parliamentary duties of a member in general, declaration of his interests pertains to any particular matter under discussion”.
It said the basic purpose of the introduction of a Register of Members’ Interests is to infuse transparency and accountability among the parliamentarians so as to reinforce confidence of public in their representatives. “The aim of registration of interests is openness, which is so vital for the functioning of a parliamentary democracy. The Committee, therefore, felt that in order to avoid a conflict of interest, the provisions relating to registration of interests need to be incorporated in the Rules. Conflicts of interest may arise from financial interests as well as non-financial interests”.
The committee also heard the Chairman of the Committee of Ethics of the Rajya Sabha on how the House has dealt with this issue over the last 8 years. Significantly, he observed that while Members had to register their interests, “the practice of Members declaring their interests before speaking in the House is still rarely done. Evidently, it has not yet become part of the broader consciousness of MPs..."
The Lok Sabha must now incorporate the changes suggested by its Committee on Ethics without any loss of time. The Upper House decided to have a Register of Members’ Interests after its Committee of Ethics suggested it in 2005. A number of Indian MPs are known to dabble in parliamentary work directly relating to their businesses and financial dealings. This is totally prohibited in most developed democracies. We must also insist that the two Houses publish the statements filed by MPs. More than an MP’s assets and liabilities, it is important for the people to know every MP’s interests and this includes his investments in stocks and shares, directorships etc. In the absence of firm rules in regard to such disclosure, MPs are tempted to utilize parliamentary devices and privileges to further their own interests.
The sooner we adopt these measures, the better. Only then will the world acknowledge that we are not just the largest democracy in the world but also a democracy that enforces norms and ethical standards for all those who represent the people in elected bodies.