Miles to Go for Ombudsman

Awakened civil society that forced the birth of Lokpal is the best disinfectant to thwart attempts of sabotage

Published: 30th December 2013 05:17 AM  |   Last Updated: 30th December 2013 05:17 AM   |  A+A-

The Rajya Sabha on December 17 and the Lok Sabha on December 18 passed the amended Lokpal Bill. Thus, the jinx has been broken after more than four decades. The first Lokpal Bill was proposed and passed in the fourth Lok Sabha in 1969. However, it did not get passage in the Rajya Sabha. Subsequent Lokpal bills from 1971 to 2008 also met the same fate. It is undisputed that Anna Hazare’s fast at Ramlila ground in 2011 and again from December 10, 2013, had forced the parliament to deliver the Act. The political strategy adopted by many political parties to sabotage the passage of the Lokpal Bill has finally met the dust.  Honesty and transparency has trounced over political inconsistency.

Measures to ensure probity and integrity in public life has been at the centrestage of national consciousness, as the scams and the tainted politicians only accentuated the widespread demand for an ombudsman. The Lokpal, though not a “cure for all ills”, was embraced by the masses as a significant step to deal with corruption at the highest levels of the government and the political machinery. It is recognised that the mere passage of the Lokpal Bill is only the first step for effectively addressing deep-rooted corruption. The issue of black money, benami transaction of property, seizure of illegally earned wealth and electoral reforms to curb the role of criminals deserve a very high priority in terms of legislation.

After successfully forcing the political establishment to get the parliament’s approval of the Lokpal Bill, social activist  Anna Hazare is planning to rekindle his struggle for electoral reforms such as the “right to reject” and “right to recall”. Constant vigilance by the civil society is necessary to ensure that the fight against corruption can be sustained and carried forward. It would require a very informed and committed civil society to ensure that other measures also get adopted in the parliament without further delay.

Perhaps the assignment would now be of a new parliament to be constituted in May 2014.

The Lokpal Act has many follow-up steps in order to be functional. First, it requires the presidential assent. The government would need to declare the date of the effectiveness of the Act.  Concurrently, the government has to frame and notify the rules as envisaged under the Act. Only then the selection of the chairman and the members can be finalised. The support staff and the rules of business will be taken up after the chairman has been sworn in. With the best of intention, it may take about six months to give a shape to a functional Lokpal. The manning of the staff position is not easy task as people with proven integrity to be recruited initially on the basis of deputation from government followed by their absorption in case found fit to ensure the autonomy and independence of the Lokpal institution. It calls for a huge organisational capacity, manpower and proven work culture. Care has to be taken that the office of the Lokpal does not become a parallel bureaucracy where the remedy would be worse than the disease itself. It is important that the government takes a proactive stance in providing initial staff and budget to the office of the Lokpal.

The jurisdiction of the Lokpal is not restricted to senior bureaucracy and political functionary. The powers of the Lokpal extend to Group A and B level officers, senior staff of public sector undertakings as well as government-assisted non-governmental organisations. Apart from co-ordination and supervision with the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Central Vigilance Commission, the responsibilities of the Lokpal would require close co-ordination with a highly decentralised administrative framework in the government. It is a logistical challenge for a centralised institution like the Lokpal to handle all cases from high-profile scams to complaints of speed money in procurement of goods and delivery of services. The most serious is the plethora of complaints which would have to be screened and then properly graded for further investigation. The experience of the functioning of Lokayukta, Central Information Commission and the state-level information commissions is a great lesson for the office of the Lokpal.

Only 19 Indian states have Lokayukta. Lack of prosecution powers, adequate staff, funds and lack of independence are some of the limitations of the Lokayukta. The sorry state of Lokayuktas across the country suggests a deliberate attempt to undermine the institution. There are a number of Lokayukta institutions who have not published their annual reports in spite of clear mandate.  There is a huge pendency of cases in terms of disposal of appeals and complaints. In many Lokayukta offices, the institutions of new complaints have overshot the disposal and thus growing pendency. Karnataka has one of the most effective and functional Lokayuktas. The total number of pending cases up to 2012 in Karnataka are 15,027, of which less-than-six-months cases are 1,632, six months to one year 1,360, one year to two years 2,707 and two years and above 9,328. Other states also have similar periodicity and numbers of pending cases. The Central Information Commission has a balance of 430,425 appeals by the end of 2012, which makes a mockery of appeals and the citizens’ need for information has become a casualty. It is reported that the UP Information Commission has 35,000 RTI applications pending with 250 applications/appeals filed everyday.

Unless the rules of the Lokpal are carefully framed, proper staff recruited in a reasonable time frame and effective screening of the complaints enforced, the institution would be unable to meet the expectations and once again the spectre of a blame game would cloud our objectivity. The Lokpal institution needs to ensure that specialised intervention and focused action is not compromised due to indiscriminate accumulation of complaints from various governmental organisations. An awakened civil society which forced the birth of the Lokpal is the best disinfectant to thwart the attempts of sabotage.

N Misra is ex-chairman,TRAI and director, Public Interest Foundation;

Email: director@publicinterestfoundation.com

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