Monday, May 30, 2016

Ek Tha Lokpal: Why a corruption watchdog eludes India 30 months after Parliament passed a historic law

On a typically cold winter day in December 2013, a frail-looking Anna Hazare broke his fast as Parliament ended years of dithering and passed a law to appoint a watchdog for punishing corrupt lawmakers and bureaucrats. As the 76-year-old Gandhian activist accepted a glass of coconut water from two children at his native village in Maharashtra, his supporters waved flags in jubilation, and people elsewhere celebrated a law that came after 10 failed attempts in Parliament over the last five decades. Opposition leader Sushma Swaraj spoke eloquently about “an old man who keeps fasting to fight corruption, and appeals to our collective conscience.” That year India was ranked 94th on Transparency International’s global corruption index of 177 countries.
Thirty months later, the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013 has not been implemented. India is yet to have it first Lokpal. These 30 months include the first two years under Narendra Modi, who became PM with a massive mandate to push growth and fight corruption. His government’s defence is: a search committee could not be formed as there was no leader of opposition (LoP) in Lok Sabha. After it lost a string of state polls, Congress had pushed the Bill before the 2014 national elections to fight the taint of scams, but it slumped to its worst performance, not winning even 55 seats to have an LoP.
The Modi government instead of urgently sorting out the limited issue of LoP introduced a 10-page amendment in December 2014. The matter has moved to a Parliamentary panel. The law required public servants to declare not only their assets and liabilities but also for their spouse. The government is in favour of making only immovable assets of officials public. While in opposition, BJP wanted a strong and independent Lokpal. Now the party is accused of both diluting the law and delaying its enforcement.
The PM believes he is doing fine without a Lokpal. “Corruption had eaten away our country like termites. So if I have stopped so much corruption, there will of course be many who will curse me. Only those who looted the nation are not enthused by this government,” said Modi at a five-hour ‘telethon’ on Saturday, while giving full marks to his two-year-old government. But the delay follows a pattern. The posts of chief information commissioner and central vigilance commissioner remained vacant for over nine months under Modi’s watch, and the government was accused of being afraid of transparency and action against the corrupt.
Modi’s remarks come days after the Supreme Court questioned why his government had not appointed anyone as Lokpal. “What is holding you back? You cannot sit over it,” the court told the government, while seeking to know by July 19 the steps taken for the appointment. The court was hearing a PIL filed by NGO Common Cause that alleged that the government and other parties were dragging feet. The top court had in 2002 asked the government to appoint a Lokpal to “end the headache of a scam every day.”
Hazare was apprehensive when the central law was enacted, and had said it would be meaningless unless implemented and enforced properly. The ‘old man’ recently accused the Modi government of delaying the Lokpal’s appointment, and questioned its intent and credibility to fight corruption. While he continues to make noises, his aides like Kiran Bedi and VK Singh have accepted top government positions. Arvind Kejriwal who oversaw protests in 2011 that forced UPA to introduce a Bill in Parliament has since formed a party, and rules Delhi. Kejriwal passed Delhi’s Lokpal law late last year, but faced charges of weak provisions and no consultations. The law awaits the Centre’s nod. But he also claims to have reduced corruption in his 15-month rule.
The Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013 is not the best law India needs. It applies to states only if they give their consent. Similarly, the requirement of reporting by authorities to the Lokpal on action taken has been removed in the Act passed by Parliament. But a law is always better than no law. The civil society had found the RTI Act weak. It still turned out to be a game changer in india.

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