The drafting process for the eagerly awaited Lokpal Bill has expectedly hit a roadblock. Civil society members of the drafting committee have naturally stuck to their principled stand in trying to ensure the strongest and most wide-ranging Lokpal institution possible. Government representatives have made up their mind to give away as little of their unaccounted powers as possible.
The key disputed provisions of the Lokpal draft relate to:
1. Inclusion of the Prime Minister within the ambit of the Lokpal
2. Inclusion of judiciary within its ambit
3. Inclusion of complete civil bureaucracy within its ambit, both at the central and state levels
4. Inclusion of conduct of MPs/MLAs inside Parliament/state Assemblies within its ambit
5. Selection and removal procedure of Lokpal panel members
6. Formation of state Lokayuktas as part of same Lokpal Bill
7. Power to punish guilty bureaucrats or politicians
8. Grievance redressal and formation of Citizens’ Charter
In my opinion, not all of these provisions are must-haves. In any negotiation, there will have to be a give and take by both sides, and it is foolhardy to expect that all of the civil society recommendations will make their way into the final Cabinet-approved draft.
What the civil society representatives and the media need to keep in mind is that the overwhelming public support to Anna Hazare’s fast was not just due to the recent spate of high-profile scams, but was also an outpouring of years of pent-up anger and frustration at the all-pervasive corruption that has only strengthened its stranglehold on the citizen with time. And so, what the public primarily expects from this Bill is an effective mechanism to deal with local, low-level corruption.
High-level corruption, though it makes headlines, affects the common man indirectly and is comparatively easier to check, thanks to a strong and independent media, laws like the RTI Act, institutions like the CAG and Supreme Court, and of course the weight of public pressure.
Low-level corruption, on the other hand, is much more serious because it is far more widespread and affects the common man (and particularly the poorest of the poor) directly. It is also more difficult to check because the shock factor associated with large-scale scams is not present here; any isolated act of corruption by a low level official is not significant enough to arouse the interest of the media or cause public indignation.
Therefore, the disputed provisions need to be prioritized keeping in mind their relevance to the public’s eventual expectations from the Lokpal Bill.
In my opinion, the following provisions are must have for the Lokpal Bill, and should be given highest priority:
1. Cover complete bureaucracy: The Bill must cover every single public servant, right from senior most to junior most bureaucrat, and at both central and state levels. If only senior officers are covered, then the common man, who bears the brunt of low-level corruption, will see very limited respite. They may feel that they have supported the Lokpal agitation in vain!
2. Formation of state Lokayuktas: The Bill must mandate the formation of a uniform Lokayukta institution in all states. This is very important because, left to themselves, individual states will dilly-dally on introducing a strong Lokayukta. Considering that most of the public interaction is with the state government officers (be it for Ration Cards, Driving License, property registration, municipal works, etc.) rather than central government ones, unless this provision is included, the Bill will bring very limited change in the ground situation as far as the common man is concerned.
3. Powers to investigate and punish: Lokpal must be completely independent and must have powers to launch investigation against any civil servant and also to take action (such as levying penalty or ordering punishment) against that person if found guilty by a court of law. It should NOT be merely a recommendatory body – its decision should be binding.
4. Own investigative machinery: Lokpal MUST have its own investigative machinery. The anti-corruption wings of the CBI and state CIDs should be brought under Lokpal and state Lokayuktas respectively.
5. Independent selection & removal procedure: The procedure for selection and removal of Lokpal/Lokayukta panel members must be free from political interference. So, while there may be politicial involvement in the process, it should not constitute a majority by itself.
The following provisions are good to have in the Lokpal Bill:
1. Bringing PM under Lokpal: This would be good to have, but is not necessarily must-have, as even moral pressure can be brought on the PM to quit, in case of serious allegations.
2. MPs/MLAs’ actions inside Legislatures: Making MPs/MLAs liable for their actions inside Parliament/state Assemblies (such as taking money to ask questions or vote in a particular way) is also good to have in the Lokpal Bill, but not a must-have.
3. Grievance Redressal & Citizens’ Charter: While this is also good to have, there is a valid concern that this would result in the Lokpal/Lokayuktas being deluged with complaints. It might perhaps be prudent to leave this responsibility with the Central Vigilance Commission.
The following provisions, in my opinion, must not be in the Lokpal Bill:
1. Bringing judiciary under Lokpal: The Indian constitution provides for complete independence of the judiciary from any external interference or oversight. This needs to be preserved for the benefit of the judiciary. Of course, there is no denying that the lower and middle judiciary is also massively corrupt. But the proper way to tackle this is through a strong Judicial Standards & Accountability Bill that must have provisions for an uncomplicated, independent and time-bound oversight mechanism over judges. Naturally, if the proposed JSA Bill disappoints on this count, another agitation will have to be launched on the lines of this one.
2. Bringing armed forces under Lokpal: The armed forces have their own investigative and judicial setup (Military Police and Courts). Let it be maintained independently in line with similar systems around the world.