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CORRUPTION CONUNDRUM

Did you know that 66 per cent of the requests for prosecution sanctions related to corruption among public servants were pending with the central government at the end of 2010? And that the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) sanctioned criminal prosecution in only six per cent of the cases, while 94 per cent were let off the hook by serving departmental penalties? As if that were not enough, 9,927 corruption cases investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) were pending with the courts as 2010 ended.

This alarming data, revealed by PRS Legislative Research, a Delhi-based organisation that provides research support on legislative and policy issues, is one of the reasons a strong Lokpal Bill, that aims to tackle corruption among public servants, is the need of the hour. Interestingly, it took eight attempts, 43 years and one Anna Hazare to force the Indian government to promise that the Lokpal Bill would soon be enacted. But now that the government has agreed to set up a joint committee to draft a new Lokpal Bill satisfactory to all sides by June 30, some niggling doubts over the bill continue to be raised.

The Jan Lokpal Bill (as opposed to the government’s draft Lokpal Bill) was drafted by former Supreme Court Justice Santosh Hegde, lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan and RTI activist Arvind Kejriwal. It envisages the creation of an independent body to investigate corruption cases within a year of the complaints being filed and trials completed in the next one year. It can also prosecute politicians and bureaucrats without getting sanctions from the government.

But some are questioning the wisdom of having a Lokpal with such sweeping powers. “Jan Lokpal can investigate, prosecute, redress grievances and even hold trials. Now that’s quite a lot for one body to do. Despite the civilian bill being comprehensive, I am a little sceptical about the powers of the Jan Lokpal. We need a powerful Lokpal but it shouldn’t be dictatorial. My fear is that the one suggested by civil society can turn dictatorial in future,” says N.C. Saxena, member of the National Advisory Council (NAC), a body set up by the government to act as an interface with civil society. Saxena was part of the NAC’s working group on transparency, accountability and governance that was examining the government’s draft Lokpal Bill.

It’s not just the powers of the Jan Lokpal that is causing concern to some activists and legal experts. They are also taking issue with the way the government was literally forced to include civilians in the joint committee. In fact, Raju Korde, a Mumbai-based advocate and social activist, will organise a protest march on April 14 to draw attention to the problem of having civilians on the drafting committee. “It’s constitutionally incorrect to have civilians like Prashant Bhushan or Arvind Kejriwal in the drafting committee,” he says. The right way to go about this, Korde feels, would have been for the government to draft the bill, send it to the standing committee, which would then have meetings with civilian groups and non-governmental organisations, which in turn would give their suggestions.

It’s not just Korde who is worried about the way the new bill is going to be drafted. “No important legislation can be enacted at gun point,” says Mumbai-based criminal lawyer Majeed Memon. He then adds, “One shouldn’t forget that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. There should be some stringent clauses to control the Lokpal’s actions. I think the Law Commission of India should step in and ensure that a balanced law is enacted.”

However, Prashant Bhushan, one of the architects of the civilian Lokpal Bill, asserts that enough checks and balances have been built into it to make sure that there is no abuse of power. “Any person can move a petition before the Supreme Court, seeking the removal of one or more of the members or even the chairperson of the Lokpal, alleging one or more of the grounds for removal and providing evidence for this. And if the apex court finds the person guilty, it can recommend his or her removal to the Prime Minister. The latter would then request the President to order the person’s removal within a month,” explains Bhushan.

With more than one version of the draft Jan Lokpal Bill doing the rounds, there has been some negative speculation about it too. For instance, one version said that the appointment of the Lokpal would be done by a collegium comprising, among others, Bharat Ratna awardees, Nobel prize winners of Indian origin, Magsaysay award winners, and so on. But those outraged at the prospect of having non-Indians (Nobel Prize winners of Indian origin) involved in such a key decision can heave a sigh of relief. As Bhushan reveals, the latest version of their Jan Lokpal Bill has replaced the award winners from the selection committee by the inclusion of the Vice-President of India and the Speaker of the Lok Sabha.

Despite some criticism over the civilians’ draft Lokpal Bill, many feel that this bill is better than what the government had come up with. “The official version is designed as a self-protective document. The Lokpal will be just one more addition to the galaxy of toothless tigers we already have,” says Tahir Mahmood, former chairman, National Minorities Commission & member, Law Commission of India.

He has a point. In the government’s version of the bill, the Lokpal would have no power to initiate suo moto action or receive complaints of corruption from the general public. It was to only investigate complaints forwarded by the Lok Sabha Speaker or Rajya Sabha chairman. In short, the Lokpal was envisaged as an advisory body whose powers would be limited to recommending actions to a “competent authority”.

Most agree that a joint committee to draft a new Lokpal Bill is a welcome decision. “Eighteen Indian states have already created the Lokayukta (a body mandated to investigate matters related to corruption and mal-administration by public servants) by passing the Lokayukta Acts. Then why not a central act to deal with corruption,” asks Rajesh Darak, secretary of Whistleblowers India, a Mumbai-based action group for whistleblowers.

If the government agrees to incorporate all or most sections of the Jan Lokpal Bill it will lead to the creation of a body that could initiate suo moto action or receive complaints of corruption from the general public, prosecute the guilty, have the power to register first information reports (FIRs), investigate and even punish the guilty.

But in a nation where corruption has become a way of life, will it be right to create an all-powerful body as suggested by civil society? “If the Jan Lokpal is way too powerful, the government’s idea of a Lokpal was far too weak. I would like to see a Lokpal that is somewhere in between,” says Saxena.

Will it happen? We will know after June 30.

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