Respond to it wisely

GRAFT AT KARNATAKA LOKAYUKTA : There is no question that Karnataka Lokayukta is a fit case for removal of the Ombudsman, in addition to criminal pro


The serious, credible charges made against Karnataka Lokayukta, Justice Y Bhaskara Rao, the public demand for his resignation, the investigation of SIT so far, and the State government’s proposal to amend the provisions of law relating to removal of Lokayukta raise several important questions regarding anti-corruption institutional framework and accountability.

Charges are levelled to the effect that Ashwin Rao, son of the Lokayukta, and others were involved in an extortion racket collecting vast sums of money. Apart from Ashok Rao, several officials and employees of the Lokayukta office, and influence peddlers outside, were said to be involved.

The arrest of Ashok, a security guard-turned businessman, the alleged involvement of an ex-journalist M B Srinivasa Gowda and an RTI activist Shankare Gowda, the resignation of H R Deshpande, the Registrar of Lokayukta, the missing CCTV footage in Lokayukta office, and the serious charges raised on the floor of the Legislative Council regarding attempted extortion of an MLC in a disproportionate assets case – all paint a sordid and distressing picture of corruption, extortion, shameless abuse of office, and attempts at manipulation of judicial process to delay or derail investigations.

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In any sane democracy, the Lokayukta would have been sacked or resigned by now. Justice Rao refused to resign or ev-en to go on leave pending investigation. Such is the brazenness and utter lack of shame in our public functionaries. We need to work toward institutional safegu-ards to protect public interest. Towards this end, let us examine the important questions this sordid episode raises.

First, who will monitor the monitors? We clearly need a system of checks and balances and accountability. There is no substitute to painstaking institution building, creation of sensible incentives, strengthening rule of law and instituting well-designed checks and balances.

Second, will anti-corruption laws and institutions work? We must understand that investigation and punishment for corruption must be a vital, last line of defence. We need a series of steps to limit discretionary use of power, promote competition, eliminate monopolies, ensure transparency, enforce accountability and guarantee delivery of services as a right.

Without taking necessary steps to prevent corruption and abuse of office, over-reliance on highly publicised, dramatic raids with little penalty neither deters the corrupt, nor prevents corruption. There is a real danger of such power soon becoming a nuisance value and a source of extortion and corruption. The Karnataka Lokayukta episode is only a telling demonstration of what happens with well-meaning, but half-backed measures.

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Take the example of a great success in closing a vital avenue of corruption in recent years. The 2G Spectrum scam rallied public opinion against corruption. But much of the agitation was about arrests, prosecution etc.

On behalf of Lok Satta, I persuaded a group of eminent, credible people and filed a writ in Supreme Court to cancel the licenses awarded by patronage and corruption without competitive bid-ding, and urged the court to order transparent bidding in all natural resources allocation.

The result of this writ was cancellation of 122 2G licences and their subsequent public auction; and an order to allocate all natural resources in future through competitive, transparent process. This led to subsequent cancellation of coal mine allocations and auctions, and mining law amendment is now in the pipeline. An important avenue of collusive corruption is now closed without much drama or street fights.

Third, does it mean there is no place for Lokayuktas and Lokpals, and for prosecution? Certainly there is. But we must design institutions wisely, integrate them effectively, and exercise vigilance eternally. In design, appointment, powers and accountability are critical. The Lokpal Act is a reasonable model.

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The proposed official amendment of Prevention of Corruption Act, (proposed Section 17A) mandating prior approval of Lokpal (after a preliminary enquiry) for even launching an investigation against all public servants including peons, clerks and support staff and junior officials will destroy anti-corruption framework, enfeeble CBI, and inundate Lokpal and render it ineffective. It is such seemingly small, innocuous changes that weaken and destroy a whole edifice.

Defective law

Finally, what should be done about Karnataka Lokayukta? There is no question that this is a fit case for removal, in addition to criminal prosecution. The law is defective as it insists on an impeachment and removal by a resolution supported by two-third members of legislature.  In India, so far, no judge has been impeached and removed under Art 124, and we need to revise the process even in respect of higher judiciary.

Equally, the Karnataka cabinet’s reported decision to amend the law to facilitate removal of Lokayukta with the consent of one-third of the legislature is absurd, counterproductive and dangerous (it has since been changed).  It completely politicises Lokayukta, and any government or a strong opposition can remove an incumbent on a whim.

The best answer is to follow the model of Lokpal.  After considerable deliberation, an acceptable, reasonable mechanism has been evolved to remove the chairman or any member of Lokpal. The President, on receiving a complaint from 100 MPs (about 12 per cent) shall refer the matter to the Supreme Court for inquiry, and upon receiving the Court’s report recommending removal, he shall remove the Lokpal.

The best course would be to amend the law adopting a similar procedure in respect of Lokayukta. In Karnataka, complaint of 10 per cent of the legislature to the Governor would be reasonable; the matter should be referred by the Governor to the High Court. There should be a time limit for enquiry, and during enquiry the Lokayukta should be relieved of duties.

This sad, sordid episode can yet be a wakeup call if we respond to it wisely.  We can, and will, exorcise the demon of corruption from our public life.  But we need sensible, creative, constructive, robust responses; not breast-beating, whining, paralysing cynicism.

(This article was originally published in DeccanHerald on 29th July 2015)