A matter of interest

Discussions on 'cooling off' periods may be missing the point. We need a regime of greater disclosure.

The Supreme Court has refused to strike down the appointment of a former bureaucrat to the post of state chief information commissioner. Hearing a PIL urging that there be a "cooling off" period for bureaucrats after their stint in government, a two-judge bench said that any such regulation would be for the legislature to consider and decide on. The court's ruling, strictly proper as it is in holding back from encroaching on the legislature's domain, nonetheless brings into focus the glaring lack of purpose in India on instituting best practices to monitor conflicts of interest that may arise not just in the conduct of administrative duties, but also in other domains, from the judiciary to the legislature itself, as also regulatory bodies, of which there has been a profusion in the past decade. In fact, the Supreme Court's comments follow a proposal by the Election Commission, already shot down by the government, that there be a "cooling off" period for government servants before they opt to contest elections.

The benefits of the blunt instrument of a "cooling off" period alone are not clear which makes it all the more imperative that there be a reasoned debate. As of now, certain regulations do exist. For example, permission is required for retired officials to take up certain kinds of employment. Also, there is a bar on holders of certain offices like that of the chief election commissioner and the comptroller and auditor general being re-employed by the government. In the legislature, conflicts of interest and encroachments on the House's autonomy are sought to be prevented by regulations on holding offices of profit, a provision that was highlighted some years ago, when it came to light that many MPs were holding posts that technically amounted to offices of profit with the Central or state governments. In the courts, too, judges recuse themselves in cases where their personal connections may amount to a conflict of interest.

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