The definition of lobbying is restricted to “lobbying activity” which is an act of communication with and payment to a public servant with the aim of influencing policies, decisions etc.
In its current form, the Disclosure of Lobbying Activity Bill is unnecessary unless it takes into account the nature of electoral funding and widens its scope to address ‘lobbying’ prevalent in its other insidious forms. Matters relating to transgressions on this can easily be dealt with anyway by the Prevention of Corruption Act.
In a country where disputes take years to resolve, and prosecution languishes in courts, there is a need to ensure timely adjudication on existing legislation instead of adding yet another law till it makes a clear distinction from existing laws. The bill on lobbying seeks to add one more layer of legislation to the already vast library of laws and will make no real difference to the conduct of public office. The Prevention of Corruption Act is quite comprehensive, and the failure by successive governments to effectively prosecute corrupt officers will scarcely be offset by bringing in another legislation that will drive the relationship between public servants and lobbyist further underground. A registered lobbyist will only sub-contract another operative to function in a grey area.
The noble intention of this bill on transparency is the opposite of what the parliament has done on electoral funding. Now political parties can source funds from other countries and can collect funds through electoral bonds which are not transparent. Take for example the matter of foreign funding of political parties. Both the Congress and the BJP, who are otherwise bitter rivals have supported the amendment that with retrospective effect made legalised foreign funding for political activities. Political parties were accused by the Association for democratic reforms (ADR) of illegally receiving funds from the U.K based Vedanta Group from 2004 to 2012.
The Lok Sabha amended the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act – FCRA that bans overseas corporations from funding political parties without debate. The new rule is among a series of measures that will make the sources of political funding more opaque. The bill on lobbying does not address the issue of political funding and limits its applications to ‘public servants’ under the Prevention of Corruption Act.
Lobbying is an age-old practice in societies across the world and has social and cultural influences that cannot be ignored. Terms such as PR, Liaison agent, Corporate Affairs, and dalal have been used for persons and agencies involved in ‘following up’ or ‘getting work done’ in government departments for years. Large corporations hire professional help and consultants for getting policy and taxation changes effected in their favour. NGOs and other pressure groups are not PR agencies but publicly and not-so-publicly try to effect policy and legislative changes. All this is known territory, and there are sufficient laws in place to punish people who seek to cause undue enrichment to private players as well as a malafide loss to the exchequer.
The definition of lobbying in the bill is pivoted around lobbying firms and civil servants who are responsible for policy formulation. But politicians who do not necessarily hold a ‘public office’ are not included. Lobbying by interest groups is not always undertaken directly with public servants and is often through various organisations and pressure groups which influence public opinion. The media, its personalities, and many politically active NGOs also attempt to influence policy, court judgments, legislation and key appointments. Excluding them from a ‘lobbying’ bill will not help in regulating the practice as it currently operates in grey areas.
The already reluctant civil servant who shifts files all over the place before taking a decision will certainly balk at making decisions where a ‘declared lobbyist’ is pushing for it. How will this help the already hapless public?
It is interesting to read the bill’s chapter IV- Filing of reports, 7.
(i) details of the subject-matter of lobbying activity, —
(a) whether lobbying was undertaken for awarding of a contract; or
(b) grant for financial benefit or to influence a legislation or a policy or a
(j) outcome of a lobbying activity, if any;
(k) name and designation of public servant with whom the lobbyist engaged
(l) the amount, description and date of payment, if any, made by the lobbyist to
the public servant;
(m) dates of communication or meeting with the public servant with whom the
lobbying activity was undertaken;
(n) true and full estimate of the total expenses incurred by the registrant with
regard to the lobbying activity;
(o) in case of a consultant lobbyist, a true and full account of the expenses
incurred by the client in connection with lobbying activities; and
(p) such other details as may be prescribed.
This shows a disconnect with how interactions happen between decision makers and decision seekers. The author of the bill is himself a Member of Parliament and is more than aware of how favour seekers conduct themselves. NGOs, think tanks and policy research organisations which are not seen as lobbyists but tend to influence public opinion and policy-making are not required to make these declarations. Since they are not lobbyists for the purposes of this lopsided Bill, why would anyone want to register and undertake such onerous reporting obligations when they can achieve the same objective of influencing public and policymaker opinion by simply creating a “Think Tank’ or ‘NGO’ instead. We face real problems of opaque decision making, lack of transparency in electoral funding, criminals in politics and very slow decision making by courts. This Bill is not going to help us achieve the objective of bringing probity in public service, justice or transparency and efficiency into the official conduct and public life.