Miles to go for Lokpal

Rajya Sabha on December 17, 2013 and Lok Sabha on December 18, 2013 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 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 centre stage of national consciousness, particularly the scam and the tainted politicians only accentuated the widespread demand for an Ombudsman.  Lokpal though not a ‘cure for all ills” was embraced by masses as a significant step to deal with corruption at the highest levels of Government and political machinery.  It is recognized that the mere passage of Lokpal Bill is only first step for effectively addressing the deep rooted corruption.  The issue of black money, benamitransaction 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.  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 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 finalized.  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 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 organizational capacity, manpower and proven work culture.  Care has to be taken that the office of 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 pro-active stance in providing initial staff and budget to the office of Lokpal.

The jurisdiction of 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 organizations.  Apart from coordination and supervision with CBI and CVC, the responsibilities of Lokpal would require close coordination with highly decentralized administrative framework in the Government.  It is a logistical challenge for a centralized 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 Lokpal.  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 functional Lokayukta.  The total number of pending cases upto 2012 in Karnataka are 15027, of which less than six months cases are 1632, six months to one year – 1360, one year to two years – 2707 and two years and above – 9328.  Other States also have similar periodicity and number of pending cases.  The Central Information Commission has a balance of 430425 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 UP Information Commission has 35000 RTI applications pending with 250 applications/appeals filed everyday.

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

By Nripendra Misra, former Chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India & Director, Public Interest Foundation.

(This article was published in the New Indian Express on 30th December, 2013)