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If I can just give to the world more than I take from it, I will be a very happy man. For there is no greater joy in life than to give. Motto : Live, Laugh and Love. You can follow me on Twitter too . My handle is @Raja_Sw.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Lokpal Bill - horizon looms beyond the stormy seas?

So after a period of drama and needless distractions in the last two months, there will be a Lokpal Bill that will be put to Parliament in the monsoon session. While there are no guarantees that the Bill will become an Act of Parliament by the end of the session, there does seem to be a reasonable likelihood of this happening.

Why then, as somebody who has been following developments on this every day since Anna Hazare’s fast on April 4th, am I not elated at this potentially historic development?

Something tells me that we may still not get quite the legislation to fight corruption that we, the people, are hoping for. I hope I am wrong but that is my gut feel right now.

Let me explain.

The Joint Committee for drafting the Lokpal Bill have ended their series of meetings with serious differences on some points. Although the government is trying to underplay these by talking about convergence on about 43 out of 50 points, the ones that remain are significant enough to be worrisome. While there will be one overall Lokpal Bill put up to Parliament, both versions (govt and Anna Hazare team) of these contentious points will be drafted into the Bill for Parliament’s discussion.

I have looked at these points and, while I am no expert, I must say that the overriding feeling I get is that the common man will be short-changed yet again if the government version is accepted by Parliament. That’s my high-level takeaway because to me the government version is largely just tinkering with the status quo and does not reflect the fundamental paradigm shift in modus operandi for handling corruption that the common man of India wants.

There seems to be a major difference in the vision of the Lokpal that the Anna Hazare team has, as compared to what the government seems to have. This is reflected in the details of the differences.

The Anna Hazare team sees the Lokpal as an independent institution, not attached to the Government of India. It will have authority to investigate complaints and prosecute offenders, without any political interference or influence.

In order to be independent, it will need to be set up by an independent, non-political panel. Similarly, if the Lokpal needs to be removed from office, this power will also only vest in an independent, non-political panel.

A similar structure will be set up as the Lok Ayukta at the state level. Completely independent from the state government and fully empowered to attend directly to citizen complaints of corruption against state government officials.

On an administrative level, the Anna Hazare team has kept the common man in mind. Recognizing that it is very difficult for the common man to prove a case of bribery or corruption, the onus has been passed to the government to prove that corruption has not happened in case time-bound tasks are not delivered within the timeframe. Thus, perhaps unintentionally, a framework for improving efficiency of the government in serving its citizens is also being proposed to be set in place.

Similarly, to ensure that the deterrents for corruption are meaningful and not token or symbolic (as is often the case at the moment), the Anna Hazare team proposes deterrents that include not just convictions but also liability to reimburse to the full extent the damage caused by such corruption.

In the view of the Anna Hazare team, nobody is above the law when it comes to corruption. And if we don’t want to allow loopholes in our attempt to address this scourge, we cannot allow any institution to be outside the purview of the Lokpal. (There are checks and balances proposed to ensure the Lokpal itself is made accountable). Thus the Prime Minister and the higher levels of judiciary are also sought to be brought within the ambit of the Lokpal.

That, in a nutshell, is the vision of the Anna Hazare team. A truly empowered and independent anti-corruption body in the Lokpal (and the Lok Ayukta), accessible to the citizens of the country for their grievances against corruption.

Like Dr. Kiran Bedi says “Today if we want to call the police, we dial 100 (or some number). If we want to complain against corruption, what number can we dial?”

The government vision, on the other hand, is very different.

While it constantly professes to be serious about fighting corruption – and I would like to give it the benefit of (the huge) doubt on this matter – it seems to me to be uncomfortable with the whole “powerful, independent Lokpal” concept.

The fact is that a truly independent and powerful Lokpal would make many government officials squirm.

Up until just about a year ago, the so-called independent institutions in the country, for example, the CBI, the CVC, the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India, did not disturb politicians’ sleep too much. Yes, they may have made the odd remark or produced the odd report but, at best, it caused a minor flutter and was quickly forgotten in a country with numerous distractions.

Even the judiciary, supposedly neutral and the pillar of justice in a democracy, seemed to be reluctant to take a strong view of any government actions.

The media, “the fourth estate in a democracy”, seemed to be chugging along with its usual fare of reporting. Nothing spectacular. Just the usual news, interviews, debates.

It was pretty much “business as usual” for the government.

And then the corruption scams began getting exposed, one by one. The scale of the scams was so staggering that it left a nation, used to corruption for decades, horrified.

The media, whether sensing TRPs or genuinely outraged, became relentless in its coverage of these stories. The usually sedate Supreme Court decided to express its outrage and began issuing strong messages to the government.

Now I may be appearing to be digressing from the main topic but I think it is very important to mention all this because it serves as the backdrop for understanding the government’s attitude to this Lokpal Bill.

It is normal human psychology that when you are losing control of something, you make every effort to regain control, otherwise you lose it for ever. This applies to everything in life.

We need to remember that the government had proposed a weak Lokpal Bill earlier. One that would, if passed, meet its professed commitment to fighting corruption but would not bring about any real change at the grassroot level for the common man.

We need to remember that although we have a Lok Ayukta system in place even today, it is hardly effective because it does not have true independence from the government.

So, while it was working towards continuing the status quo with purely cosmetic changes, the government is hardly likely to now suddenly start embracing something that, if implemented in its purest form, could be the government’s worst nightmare.

Not only would the government lose control over institutions (that would be bad enough!) but ministers, bureaucrats and others currently used to zero-accountability to the public would suddenly become as “ordinary” as other members of the public, answerable for corruption cases just like anybody else. And with strict punishment to boot.

So clearly the government’s vision of the Lokpal is far more limiting than that of the Anna Hazare team. If at all there needs to be an institution not entirely controllable by the government, surely the next best thing is to limit its scope?

The government has extremely erudite and articulate representatives on its drafting panel and they make extremely strong arguments for their case. They argue why they feel the Lokpal could end up becoming another “parallel” government, why it would be a “leviathan”, why it is not practical or feasible to cover so many government employees (central and state) within the ambit of the Lokpal, why it is naïve to assume that the same, supposedly corrupt, government employees today would suddenly become clean if under the Lokpal.

I do not agree with any of this. First of all, accountability does strange things to people. A lot of today’s corruption comes because of lack of accountability. Lack of a redressal mechanism for the aggrieved is a huge reason for corruption too. Introduce a “dial-a-complaint-number” and see what happens. Add to that the fact that punishments are not just a gentle tap on the wrists anymore. I believe that if the citizen chooses to use his powers under the new legislation, a large number of petty corruption cases will just disappear because the system would have been strengthened. So we do not need an “army”, as the government representatives would like to have us believe.

These representatives have also been at pains to explain why they feel the Prime Minister’s office and senior members of the judiciary should be excluded from the ambit of the Lokpal. And why ministers should continue to get immunity (as provided for in the Constitution) for their actions inside Parliament.

I can see their point about the PMO’s office though I don’t agree with it. I may just agree with their point about senior members of the judiciary, provided the judicial reforms they talk about then are as strong as the Lokpal in dealing with corruption in the higher judiciary. If they came within the ambit of the Lokpal, that would already be within a standard framework, but if not, then similar independence, transparency, punitive measures would need to be set up. Seems unnecessary. As for immunity for ministers in Parliament, this needs to go. If this requires a constitutional amendment and could delay the process of this anti-corruption legislation (although some amendments seem to miraculously get passed very easily), I’d push for this at a later point in time.

To me, as a common man, these are not the points that dishearten me the most in the current debate. I know these have been the hottest subjects of debate but what matters most to me are a couple of other things.

Apparently, a state can opt for whether it wants a Lok Ayukta or not. I just do not understand the logic of this. Surely we should have a unified, simplified mechanism across all states for fighting corruption? We are trying to build a sustainable institutional framework here for the entire country, not something arbitrary for a part of it. The common man in every state has considerable dealings with his state government and is entitled to expect the same support and redressal mechanism that others with a new-look and empowered Lok Ayukta will have available to them. Why try to invent different solutions for different states?

The other point I am concerned about is the independence of the Lokpal and Lok Ayukta. The government seems to want to introduce government representatives into the panel that can remove a Lokpal. Why? Surely this can compromise the independence of the Lokpal?

There seems to be divergence also on the funding of the Lokpal. Apparently both parties agreed that it will be funded out of the Consolidated Fund of India but the mechanics are under debate. Anna Hazare’s team wants complete financial independence whereas the government seems to want this funding to be provided for by the Finance Ministry. This is no small matter – after all the talk about the Lokpal’s independence, it would be ridiculous if it is capable of being influenced due to financial considerations of budget allocation. Yet I think there is a point to the government’s position too. I am not very knowledgeable in this area but I will only say that if the government proposal is approved, hopefully the Lokpal’s functioning will be transparent enough for us to know if it is is being hampered by its funding or not. There is no way, having come so far, that this can be allowed to weaken the Lokpal’s functioning.

All in all, the struggle is still far from over. Mind you, all this struggle is just to get strong anti-corruption legislation in the country in the first place. This is just to get the framework in place - after that, we have to make sure it works! There will be start-up problems, there will be attempts to scuttle it even after the law is passed, there will be skepticism.

Nobody has ever claimed that this will be a panacea for solving India’s corruption problems. Let’s face it – corruption starts with each one of us. And it goes way beyond the government, we all know that. But if this legislation comes out the way the common man would like it to, it should at least make the government much cleaner and more accountable than they are now. That’s about as much as we can hope for.

A couple of things. I’ve used the term “Anna Hazare’s team” throughout instead of talking of “civil society”. That’s because the government prefers to use this terminology as it believes that “civil society” has multiple voices. I’ve deferred to the government terminology but that does not change anything in the way I perceive this struggle. The movement that Anna Hazare and his team are leading to bring about strong anti-corruption legislation in the country has the backing of the entire nation, even if some may differ on his methods or on the details of some of the proposals. And that is the bigger point here. And what’s in a name anyway? Call it “civil society”, call it “Anna Hazare’s team”, it is the goal that is more important here.

Also, throughout this piece, I’ve not mentioned any specific political party or even the UPA government. It is not a struggle against a particular party, it is a struggle against a system.

I will be continuing to follow progress on the Lokpal Bill with great interest. I have been following this subject ever since Anna Hazare’s fast at Jantar Mantar on the 4th of April. I attended his rally at Bangalore on the 28th of May.

In all these years, I’ve never seen such a concerted effort in the country for changing a system. I was not old enough when the Jayaprakash Narayan movement happened in the country, so I cannot comment about it or draw parallels with Anna Hazare’s movement. All I know is that Anna Hazare and his team seem to me to be driven in their effort to bring about this change in the country.

Finally it is upto the Members of Parliament to pass this Bill and make it an Act. If it is not all that we had hoped for, it is certainly not due to any lack of effort on the part of Anna Hazare’s team. In any case, it is likely to be much, much better than a toothless bill that would have passed off as anti-corruption legislation in the country. Having said that, if it turns out not to be effective enough, we might need to make our voice heard by the government again.

So I am under no illusion at all that we’re close to anything right now. We’ve still got a long way to go. But as long as we keep up our efforts, as long as we do not allow ourselves to go back to our indifferent selves, as long as the government realizes that it cannot take us for granted anymore, we have hope for change.

It is not about Anna Hazare and his five-member team. It is about each one of us.

1 comment:

చాతకం said...

చాలా బాగా వ్రాసారండి. మీ అభిప్రాయాలతో నేను కూడా ఏకీభవిస్తున్నాను.