Sunday, October 16, 2011

Lokpal Bill – A journey into future

Courtesy: Wikipedia
August 15, 2020: Nine years ago, in the chilling winters of 2011, the Lokpal Bill came into existence with bench thumping and applause from all hues of politics and civil society. The nation gives credit for the Lokpal Bill to the movement which was aptly called second struggle of independence. In the years of 2010 and 2011. millions of Indians left their middle-classy comforts and hit the roads to protest against the delays to pass the Lokpal bill which was pending for the last 62 years and against the rather toothless version of it presented by the then government at center. Nine years, thirty six seasons, and 4 governments later, here we stand with eight amendments to the Lokpal Bill. Each of these successive amendments brought about major changes in the functioning of the institution of Lokpal and enhanced its efficiency in dealing with corruption.

Central Vigilance Commission had been dissolved and merged with Lokpal to streamline the institution of Lokpal. However, the departmental vigilance agencies have been retained as they were crucial for investigation. Vigilance departments, Lokayukta of each states, and Lokpal were kept independent of each other so if one is affected by corruption, others can still function independently.

Selection of the Lokpal members is made on the recommendations of the judiciary, civil society, and other constitutional authorities. However, to make sure of the integrity of the its member, a second check has been placed and selection of each member has to be approved by the parliament.

Additional safeguards have been provided to make sure the Lokpal is not misused to settle scores with political or business rivals. Though Lokpal is chiefly responsible to start proceedings and investigate cases of corruption, CBI would be responsible for dealing with the criminal aspects of the cases. In this way, the nation can be sure that the best minds of CBI are employed when it comes investigation of a crime. In other words, the Lokpal would initiate the process and provide recommendations to CBI for investigations and CBI would take it further, investigate the case, and start the judicial process. This will create a two-pronged approach towards corruption, Lokpal forms the contact point with the citizens and CBI the investigative arm, each independent of the other to ensure zero misuse of power.

Citizens have been given the right to complain about corrupt officials and public servants. However, given the low level of understanding of the workings of the government and bureaucracy among the citizens, an amendment in the Lokpal Bill made it compulsory to route the complaints through the people's elected representatives (MLA, MP, panchayat members, etc.). The people's representatives must judge the authenticity of the complaint before forwarding it to the Lokpal. This has helped curb the number of frivolous complaints and complaints with incomplete details.

The role of media in fighting corruption has been debated. Often times it was found that the media leveled charges of corruption against civil servants just to create sensational news pieces. Given the hostile attitude of media towards the ruling class and bureaucracy, the press, electronic media, or any other institutions associated in anyway with publication of news have been barred from being able to place complaints with Lokpal.

Also, since the media has the ability to influence public opinion on the cases of corruption and bring public sentiments to boiling points, they were a risk to impartial and just investigation and judgement of corruption related cases. The Constitution of India bestows the basic right of an impartial and complete trial and judgement to each citizen. Media's ability to influence public opinion and hence, judicial decisions were a direct attack on the constitutional right of a citizen. Hence, it was unanimously agreed by all the elected representatives of the land to keep media away from the proceedings of a corruption related case. In order to uphold the constitution, the media has been barred from investigating or publishing anything related to case which is being handled by Lokpal or Lokayukta. It was also made mandatory that all the proceedings and court hearings must be conducted within closed doors ensuring no leakage of information to the media and public.

The parliament forms the base of the Indian democracy. It is the representation of 1.6 billion souls and their collective political aspirations, representation of the sovereignty of the land and the sacrifice of martyrs who fought for its sovereignty. Hence, pointing fingers at the parliament and the publicly elected representatives is like insulting the democracy and the idea itself smells of anti-nationalism. Putting the sitting members of parliament under trial is equivalent to putting the Indian democracy and its sovereignty under trial. This was unacceptable. Soon after the realization of this aspect of Lokpal Bill, an amendment was passed and the members of parliament were given immunity from being prosecuted. However, a case can be registered against them once their term in parliament is over and they are not re-elected.

At the time of formation of the bill, the maximum time allocated for investigation and closure of a case was limited to 1 year. However, later it was opined by prominent constitutional experts that having a time limit this short overpowers the fundamental right of the accused to defend herself/himself. It was also felt that a year is too short a time period to do justice to fair investigation and judgement. The founding fathers of India had always been of the view that the state and judiciary must not punish a single innocent, that the benefit of doubt must rest with the accused, though this may leave someone unpunished for their crimes. Hence, respecting the views of the founding fathers, it was decided that 1 year was not enough to conclude corruption cases and both Lokpal and the accused were given rights to ask for time limit extensions. Extensions can be granted by the session court in whose jurisdiction the case falls.

With these amendments, finally India has a robust law against the evils of corruption. The workings of this law have been very effective. The number of sensational cases of corruption has dropped dramatically. We now hardly hear of any scams or misappropriation of public assets. Annual report of Lokpal also shows that very few complaints of corruption are received. All this indicates that corruption has been tackled at the point where it originates. This is something that must be celebrated with as much enthusiasm as we celebrate our independence after all it was corruption that threatened the independence of India and its economy. And now the country has effectively tamed this demon.

PS: It's a satirical imagination.
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