Waiting for a Lok Pal

Waiting for a Lok Pal

The Karnataka government has finally given the power to the Lokayukta to take suo motu cognisance of allegations of corruption against any official up to the rank of the chief secretary, but the chief minister, ministers and MLAs have been kept beyond the purview of the Lokayukta.

Justice N Santosh Hegde (retd), Lokayukta of Karnataka, put the state BJP government in the dock by resigning from his post blaming it of ‘indifferent attitude’ to corruption. However, the top leadership of the BJP was quick to discern the growing tide of public opinion against the state government, and L K Advani stepped in to control the damage and successfully persuaded Hegde to withdraw the resignation.

The state government has conceded his one demand and class I and senior officials have been brought within ambit of Lokayukta’s jurisdiction. However, the rationale behind leaving the elected representatives out of bounds is not understandable. Fight against corruption will be futile and meaningless if no effort is made to extirpate the political corruption which is the fountainhead of all maladies.

The office of the ombudsman must be bequeathed adequate power if it is to be a watchdog against corruption. Unfortunately, neither the Union government nor any state government is willing to strengthen the institution. In 2004, Manmohan Singh had boldly declared his intent to set up the office of the Lok Pal and had said that even the prime minister would come under his purview.

It is reliably learnt that the prime minster had even asked a former Chief Justice of India to stay back in Delhi for the new assignment, but his allies like Lalu Prasad and Sharad Pawar vetoed the proposal.

One positive outcome of the unsavoury episode of Hedge’s resignation is that the Union government is mulling over bringing a Central legislation to effect sweeping changes in the ambit and functions of the ombudsman’s office, besides vesting it with constitutional status and making it a multi-member body like the Election Commission with more powers.

It is necessary to make the office of Lokayukta uniform across the country. It is proposed to be headed by a retired supreme court judge or a high court chief justice and consist of the state vigilance commissioner and a jurist or an eminent administrator. They will be appointed by a collegium of the chief minister, the leader of the opposition in the state legislative assembly and the chief justice of the high court of the respective state.

A Central legislation is essential to make the institution permanent and not contingent on the mercy of the state government. So far, 17 states have set up the institution, but there are pronounced differences in their respective legislations with regard to their powers, functions and jurisdiction.

While some states have not appointed Lokayuktas, in others, the holder of this post is more or less toothless. In some states, the Lokayuktas complain of inadequate staff and poor infrastructure while in others the requests for sanction of prosecution or recommendations are gathering dust in the cupboards of the state governments.

Orissa was the first state to pass an enabling legislation in 1970 and was the first to abolish it in 1992. Justice S K Ray (retd) was appointed as Lok Pal of Orissa in 1989 for 5 years but was removed from the post following the abolition of the Lok Pal Act.

Several other Lokayuktas have been unceremoniously removed by different state governments. Justice I P Vashisht (retd) was appointed as the Lokayukta of Haryana by the Bansi Lal government in 1997, but the next government headed by Om Prakash Chautala removed him after less than eight months through an ordinance. Such instances abound.

The office of ombudsman was introduced on the recommendation the First Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) headed by Morarji Desai. Acting on the recommendations, the Centre tabled a Bill in parliament in 1968 providing for such an institution. However, the Bill lapsed following the dissolution of the Lok Sabha. Since then, the legislation for Lok Pal at the Centre has been tabled at least eight times, the last being in 2001, but every time it lapsed with the dissolution of House.

The Second ARC, headed by M Veerappa Moily, recommended giving Lokayukta more powers to investigate corruption. However, in 2008, parliament diluted the Prevention of Corruption Act through an amendment which virtually nullified the powers of the prosecuting agencies, including the Lokayukta.

The question is how to combat and contain corruption? The government has made discriminatory provisions under which senior officers are protected and only petty officials are subjected to investigation and prosecution. It is precisely against this that Justice Hegde fulminated.

At the Centre also, the government protects the officers in the rank of joint secretary and above for whom sanction is required from the appointing authority to prosecute them. It was done through single directive which was held unconstitutional by the supreme court in the Vineet Narayan case.

The office of the ombudsman must be strengthened to fight the canker of corruption. After all, the ombudsman is subject to the jurisdiction of the court. So, the powers needed for the effective functioning of the office must be vested in it.

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