Removing a shield

Removing a shield

The Supreme Court’s ruling that there is no need for prior government sanction for the CBI to probe into corruption cases against civil servants of the rank of joint secretary and above removes an unnecessary and often misused protection for senior officials.

A constitution bench of the court has struck down Section 6A of the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act, which governs the CBI, after finding it discriminatory and obstructive in the fight against corruption. The court had in fact  many years ago struck down government orders which mandated such prior sanction for investigation of cases against  officials, but Section 6A was later enacted to circumvent the ruling. Though the ostensible reason is to protect senior officials from harassment over decisions in the course of their duties, it was mainly meant to shield them from any  probe into their wrongdoing.

There is no such legal cover for junior officials, officials of equivalent rank in states or even for ministers. In the case of ministers, the presiding officers of the houses of parliament or the Prime Minister’s Office have only to be informed of the investigation. As the court pointed out, there is no reason for the shield to be available to a class of senior officials, as it is against the tenets of equality before the law and against the objectives of the Prevention of Corruption Act. In the past many investigations were delayed or stymied  by the refusal of the government to grant permission even for preliminary investigation into corruption charges. Probes into charges of irregularities in coal field  allocations were among them. Sometimes the investigative agency had to wait for officials to retire before questioning them. Even now there are many cases where the CBI is awaiting  permission  from the government for investigation of serious corruption charges. The judgment can speed up investigation of these cases.

The judgment should strengthen the CBI which has found it difficult to pursue cases against people in powerful positions. It may also be considered as part of a process to grant more independence and latitude of action for the agency. But many proposals to reform and restructure the CBI are yet to be implemented. It goes without saying that the power  which the agency has now gained should be exercised with a high sense of responsibility and an understanding of the process of decision-making within the government. It should not invite charges of harassment of innocent officials.

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