Corruption in high places has been hogging the headlines again. Recently, a special court created quite stir by sentencing former Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa to imprisonment for allegedly amassing disproportionate wealth amounting to ₹66.6 crore. A court also issued an arrest warrant against an IAS couple, after tax raids unearthed cash of ₹3 crore and assets worth ₹360 crore, including two dozen apartments acquired by the couple.

Another investigation found a police official sitting on tainted assets valued at ₹100 crore. In all these cases, legal action against the government officials was initiated under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 which counts the possession of ‘disproportionate assets’ by a public servant as criminal misconduct.

What is it?

What the Act says, shorn of legalese, is this: “A public servant commits the offence of criminal misconduct if he is in possession of pecuniary resources or property, disproportionate to his known sources of income”.

Therefore, there are three requirements for a person to fall under suspicion under this Act. One, they should own assets that seem to be out of sync with their legal sources of income. Two, they should occupy a public office. And three, they should be unable to account for how they came by these assets. Disproportionate asset cases are used to initiate corruption probes on public servants and elected politicians by the CBI and the Income Tax Department.

Why is it important?

The ‘disproportionate assets’ provision in the Prevention of Corruption Act is quite a stringent one, because the possession of such assets itself constitutes an offence of criminal misconduct. The rule presumes that the excessive assets are likely to have been acquired by corrupt means or by abuse of official position. It puts the onus of proof on the person accused of corruption. It is sufficient for a public servant to be in possession of disproportionate assets relative to known sources of income, for the authorities to initiate criminal proceedings.

Why should I care?

Given the rising size of corruption scandals in India, corruption costs the taxpayer dear. Widespread corruption also completely deprives the poor of essential services, as they are unable to access any public service without paying a bribe. Did you know that illegal mining tacitly supported by the elected officials in Karnataka cost the country ₹16,085 crore? And the ₹2,342-crore loss to the exchequer due to corruption in organising the 2010 Commonwealth Games?

Corruption is commonly perceived to be part and parcel of doing business in India as well. This has led to the country being ranked 94th in a list of 177 nations in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2013. Given that the problem seems to be endemic to public life, a law that enables prosecution of tainted individuals on the basis of wealth disproportionate to their sources of income, rather than one that tries to prove misconduct, is expected to be a strong deterrent to corruption.

The bottomline

Glad that the Income Tax authorities and the CBI are finally fighting corruption by taking on the high and the mighty? Well, don’t forget that corruption cannot flourish without the active co-operation of us citizens. Pay your taxes on time and avoid the temptation to expedite public services by paying a bribe.

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