How an alternative set of ideas to the Jan Lokpal Bill has arrived and why you don’t know about it yet. Revati Laul tells you
IN FIVE years, Anna Hazare will fast unto death to remove the Jan Lokpal,” said a retired bureaucrat, in jest. The air in his drawing room was thick with irony and the sardonic wit that comes with having spent a lifetime in the administration, only to now watch the nation debate to death how he and many like him could have done their jobs better.
If you’re sick of seeing stories about the Lokpal, if the words ‘anti-corruption’ and ‘civil society’ makes your hackles rise, then this is essential reading. Because the story of what our country needs to do to fix itself just got much more interesting. And since this time around, no one’s fasting and there isn’t a publicity blitzkrieg, the new set of suggestions on what needs to be done has come very quietly, tagged by a few newspaper reports and even fewer TV debates. And in some way, it can be said, the new set of ideas was born of the collective discontent with the Jan Lokpal draft Bill, which many have called too large and administratively unwieldy to be workable.
While things were falling apart between Anna Hazare and the government, resulting in two versions of the Lokpal Bill being put up on two different websites, in another room, a group of activists were busy brainstorming on a possible alternative. They had a different way of seeing things. Not one Lokpal or one Bill. But a basket of reforms. And on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, at the same venue where the Jan Lokpal had been discussed, RTI activists Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey and Shekhar Singh presented a collection of new ideas.
But before we get into discussing the ideas, it’s important to watch the back story. Of how and why they were born. Rewind to 3 April. The large, old wooden round table of the seminar room in what was once Jawaharlal Nehru’s home, now the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi. Anna Hazare’s fast was two days away and Arvind Kejriwal, Prashant and Shanti Bhushan, fresh from drafting the Jan Lokpal Bill, were presenting their work to all those who cared to listen. Their chief audience wasn’t the press. It was the group of activists who had all started the campaign for the people’s right to information (RTI). Roy, Dey and Singh, who in the year 1996 had formed the umbrella group called the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI). Which eventually resulted in the RTI becoming law and the Central Information Commission being set up. This group now heard Anna’s team, Arvind Kejriwal in particular, defend what they had written. And they were asking the following: If one body looks at both corruption and grievance redressal, or at scams like the 2G on the one hand and also the complaint of a daily wage labourer in Araria in Bihar, who hasn’t got his ration card, then won’t this institution crumble under the weight of too much work?
The questions hang in the air thick and soggy, but while Anna’s team said they would look into these concerns, the fact is, even after Anna’s fast had ended, the questions remained largely unaddressed. At least from the point of view of Roy and her colleagues in the NCPRI.
ON THAT warm April afternoon, when Anna’s team made their presentation, the differences between the two camps had already sliced through the air of the seminar room. Aruna Roy had become distinctly uncomfortable with the idea that Anna’s team seemed to have their minds made up about the kind of bill they were going to propose.
Shekhar Singh describes these concerns: “Arvind said to me that look, we have now taken this draft around to many parts of the country. We’ve got a fair amount of support also. So if there are small changes, we can make those. But if you want a major change, we’ll have to go back (to the people whose support we got). I said, what do you mean, go back? We had a discussion on it but they were very hesitant to change too much.”
Many drafts and breakdown between the two groups on the Bill later, on a rainy July afternoon, Roy’s group presented a basket of reforms as an alternative — different institutions and solutions to address different problems, instead of one body for everything.
“It is essential to have a multiplicity of decentralised institutions, to avoid the concentration of too much power, especially unaccountable power, in any one institution or authority,” says their draft.
This is what their basket contains:
1) An independent Lokpal, to whom citizens can go with complaints against the prime minister, politicians and also the higher levels of bureaucracy. The list includes chief ministers and all other central and state ministers, MPs, MLAs, MLCs, elected councilors and all class A officers of the Indian administration. And it will have corollary Lokayuktas in every state, to examine cases of corruption at that level. The prime minister can be investigated, but with a double-barrel set of checks to prevent this from becoming a full time occupation for the PM, in response to frivolous charges. First, the full bench of the Anti Corruption Commission or Lokpal must unanimously agree that there is enough evidence to examine the PM. And then a full bench of the Supreme Court has to also agree on this. Finally, intelligence and security matters will not be open for investigation. The Lokpal will be an independent body, appointed by a select committee, and have full powers of investigation and special courts to prosecute those charged with corruption within a specified time frame.
2) A strengthened and empowered Central Vigilance Commission to cover all middle and lower level officers, not covered under the Lokpal. This is where people can go to with their complaints against officers of all stripes except for class 4 rank officers. The CVC Act, it is proposed, should be amended to give the body a separate investigative and prosecution wing. And in cases like the 2G type of scam, where the commission may find, higher level officers are also implicated, it can have the case transferred to the Lokpal. Also, if you do have a complaint against a class 4 officer and this is not being sorted out through the normal course of law, at your local police station, then you can take this up with the CVC, which will act as an appellate body to look at such cases. With all this in place, you may ask, what happens to the anti-corruption wing of the CBI? It’s proposed that those officers could either be merged with the CVC, but this is still an open question, on which there is an ongoing debate. What is also being debated is whether preliminary complaints should first be subject to a departmental inquiry, so as to not create a parallel structure of authority in government departments… or whether complaints should directly be taken up by independent and external vigilance officers.
3) A three-tier decentralised Grievance Redressal Commission to look specifically at grievances arising out of services not delivered — like BPL cards. This will involve the setting up of grievance redressal officers in every government department down to the village block or city ward, who will take complaints from people and make sure the responsibility for the lapse is fixed as well as action taken or a fine imposed on the wrong-doer.
4) An amended Judicial Accountability Bill to address the entire gamut of concerns — both corruption and misconduct amongst the judiciary. This will involve the setting up of a judicial oversight committee consisting of a Supreme Court judge chosen by a collegiums of judges, the Chief Justice of a High Court, also chosen by a collegium, two nonjudicial members chosen by the Vice President, the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice of India and the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha; where the committee is chaired by a former Chief Justice. This it is believed, will take care of cases of corruption amongst judges and yet, not end up compromising the basic tenets of our constitution where the judiciary is kept separate from the executive and legislature.
5) And finally, a comprehensive Whistleblowers Protection Bill to allow people to make complaints to the various commissions without the fear of being killed or sacked or disempowered in any way for it.
The idea of a basket sets Roy’s group apart from Anna’s in two very fundamental ways. First, Roy’s group thinks it equally important to streamline, re-work and strengthen existing institutions, not just make a clean break with the past. And secondly, their many decades of experience in grassroot democracy and taking on the government have led them to believe — never to put your eggs in one basket. That too much power in one place can corrupt anybody. And also, corruption isn’t one kind of problem. It’s many. And each part of the beast needs to be tackled differently.
IT’S A set of ideas that has greatly impressed political scientist Yogendra Yadav of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. Yadav has been a huge supporter of the Anna group for making corruption a national issue. But he says this new basket of reforms has fearlessly gone where few other reformers in our country dare go — recognising that one idea can’t fix everything. They don’t suffer the same syndrome that most reformers, including Anna’s group does: “Monism” or the irresistible temptation to “open all the locks with one single key”.
In a tiny garage office, tucked into a set of government flats in south Delhi, Nikhil Dey was happy to explain how the basket idea actually comes on the back of their decade-long struggle to get the Right to Information Bill passed. He insists now, that he’s coming at the anti-corruption movement from a different place from the Anna group. In the Anna campaign, he explains, it turned into a largely middle class movement and the “middle class wants to fight its battles by proxy”. Therefore, they prefer to come at the movement by shouting down government institutions and wanting to transfer their rage and disgust into a large and powerful body to which they can outsource their politics — make it do the work of cleaning up corruption.
That’s not how it works, explains Dey. That isn’t how they began or fought for RTI. A movement that grew bottom-up and therefore placed the burden of making it work on the user.
But all these voices are still far removed from the dust and grime of getting the job done. Pratyush Sinha, who’s just retired as India’s Central Vigilance Commissioner, says, whichever way the debate goes, it must certainly look at creating something that is easy to manage. Four years of dealing with corruption cases in the higher bureaucracy, Sinha says, the basket idea seems much more do-able. The devil here is in the detail. In the mountains of paperwork that every single complaint of corruption generates. This is what we’re talking about, if we really want action. “Certain complaints came to me about one important government functionary,” recalls Sinha. “And the system is that you first ask the Chief Vigilance Officer of the department to react to it. He sent us some papers. We found they were not complete: important documents were missing. We wrote back saying: Can the following missing papers be sent? It took 2-3 months. Then again some important documents were missing. We then decided to take it up for direct inquiry. The total strength in the Vigilance Commission is about 30 officers. We realised they had to go through 100 files, each running into hundreds of pages. It took us more than a year to complete that. Two or three of my officers were doing just this.”
Imagine, he said, his face twisting in horror at the thought, if the Jan Lokpal was to take on the entire bureaucracy. That’s several million officers. There’d be a few thousand complaints every day. The rest of the nightmare doesn’t need to be described. You can hear it accumulate and jangle inside Sinha’s head.
But while Sinha is now a comfortably retired bureaucrat, Shaliesh Gandhi is still in office. He’s the man busy collecting thousands of complaints under the RTI. As Information Commissioner (IC), he should feel powerful and emboldened by the citizens’ movement that actually led directly to cases of corruption being exposed. But in an office hidden behind a CRPF badminton court in what used to be the Jawaharlal Nehru University’s old campus; Gandhi is actually cynical and sardonic. He threw up his profitable business in the year 2003, when Bihar engineer Satyendra Dubey blew the whistle on corruption in the national highway project and was later found dead. After some years as an RTI activist, Gandhi was appointed IC.
“I told my friends, I won’t take a salary,” he said, his eyes sparkling. But then, he walked into an office which had a staff of precisely two people. And thousands of RTI applicants’ files screaming to be heard. So he took the government salary and spent it on hiring interns. A request letter sent to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for an increase in staff is pending since 2008. Gandhi thought: Never mind, I’ll pay for the extra staff from my pocket and just get the job done. He disposes of nearly 5,000 RTI applications every year. But on the question of how to rid the country of corruption, he says the real question is not getting a Lokpal. But the much less glamorous task of day-to-day governance. Administrative overhaul. Government departments urgently in need of restructuring.
“Where has anybody asked, how much work are you doing? There is no pressure.”
His anecdotes are an interesting contrast to Sinha in the Vigilance Commission. And this is also what makes the whole debate on how to stem corruption interesting. Sinha’s anecdotal experience in dealing with corruption cases as the CVC made him draw the opposite conclusion from Shailesh Gandhi. Yet both are or have been administrators and reformers in their own right.
AN ANECDOTAL story Gandhi tells us, unfolds the much neglected tapestry in our country — where laws are passed but not implemented. “In Maharashtra, 4-5 years ago, we got a law which was again the result of an Anna Hazare fast. Which says that all officers will ensure that no paper remains with them for more than seven days. No department will keep any file with them for more than 45 days. Not one thing has been implemented. Under the RTI, I sought information — please tell me how many cases have you found (of people being punished for keeping files longer than this new stipulated time) and the answer is zero. So I asked some senior secretaries: Then why do we have this law? And they said: Oh, Annaji demanded it, so it was made a law.”
This new basket of reforms has fearlessly gone where few other reformers in our country dare go- recognising that on eidea can’t fix everything
Gandhi extrapolates from this account to say, he therefore puts more faith in the Jan Lokpal Bill than the basket of reforms. That is because an all-powerful body that will be a sharp rupture from the past, in his opinion, will be more likely to get the job done, than a basket of reforms. That may end up being “business as usual”.
Music to the ears of those who drafted the Lokpal Bill. Like Prashant Bhushan. Smack in the midst of arguing a PIL against Kapil Sibal for allegations of being soft on Reliance in a telecom matter, Prashant is in a combative mood.
“To my mind, the whole basis of proposing a basket rather than proposing one Bill is conceptually flawed. Unfortunately, they have fallen into the government’s trap of suggesting something that will lead to a bogus Lokpal Bill and everything else will be left to other Bills which will never come.”
For those who’ve been in administration, or taken on the government, as Prashant has, this is a highly emotive issue. If the government has already come down so heavily on the civil society version of the Lokpal Bill, how will there be enough support and pressure generated to get it to pass five Bills as the NCPRI basket proposes? The Judicial Accountability Bill has been pending in Parliament for a decade and the Whistleblowers Act has been an urgent, crying need ever since the RTI became an Act in 2005. But several RTI activists’ murders later, where does this Bill stand? The answer is a deafening silence.
“For grievances, there is a case for putting that before a separate forum. That’s the only part of their suggestion where there is an arguable case although even there I feel corruption and grievances are inter-related. So it is functionally more efficient that the same institution looks after grievances that arise out of corruption,” he says.
The real overarching question behind the furrows on Prashant’s forehead and scepticism of the basket of ideas, is however not so much to do with the text and letter of the reforms. But the campaign and momentum around it. Or the lack of it. For all the critique of the Anna Hazare campaign, there is one unequivocal truth out there. The Anna campaign has brought the issue of corruption centrestage. Middle class or not, it’s also forced the government to agree to a re-write and to table a bill that’s been in the making for 40 years, in Parliament in August. If Aruna Roy wants a basket of reforms to become a reality, and does not want Anna Hazare or anyone else to have to fast for it, then just how will this basket be pushed past an administration that already thinks it can use the Anna vs Roy debate to do what it pleases?
Any institution driven by the anti-corruption movement will perform. Driven merely by an administrativebureaucratic thing, it won’t work
NCPRI’sNikhil Dey says it’s NOT an “us” versus “them” story at all. In fact, the NCPRI recognises that it’s on the back of the Anna Hazare movement that they can even hope to push their basket forward in the first place. “We don’t see this as a binary — this or that. I see it as an opportunity since it’s brought the issue centrestage.”
Their approach will not be a Big Bang Theory, he says. However, they don’t intend it to soften into a politically defunct whimper either. So for now, they’ve begun just like the Jan Lokpal did — in quiet seminar rooms, as a series of concept notes. With more questions than answers. They’re also going to use the recipes for mobilisation they had in place when they campaigned for the RTI. Taking the concepts to select audiences across the country. Through public hearings and private gatherings. It will be a sort of targeted approach to campaigns. Different strokes for different folks. Grievance redressal will be thrashed out and whetted at tehsil, block and village gatherings. The Judicial Accountability Bill will be bashed about in court chambers and lawyer’s forums.
Simultaneously, says NCPRI’s Shekhar Singh, the concept note in its present form is being taken to all major political parties and will soon land in government inboxes as well.
As Anna Hazare has threatened the government with yet another fast, the NCPRI recognises that there can be too much of a good thing. That there is a crisis and they should step in to take the story from here on. Adding reason and another ingredient they recognise as missing from the Anna vials: Faith. Faith in democratic institutions. And in the slow, messy ways of the democratic process.
That dialogues need to be built urgently, but effectively. That the RTI took a decade in the making. But that it didn’t happen only as a rising or groundswell of activism and indignation. That equally important was deft manoeuvering after the bill went to the cabinet.
“The RTI got mauled in the cabinet,” explains Nikhil Dey. “It got restored by the standing committee of the Parliament where 150 amendments were made.”
IT’S BEEN a tedious, tiring and frustrating journey before victory came for the RTI activists. And so, their preferred method — turtle like. Slow, steady.
And so, a political observer like Yogendra Yadav, in the business of poring over the tedium, legalese and tomes of drafts of political reform says, these are actually very exciting times to live in. Yadav cautions the naysayers of the Jan Lokpal, saying that labelling it an all powerful body is a bit over the top. There’s nothing wrong with a powerful institution. The question really is: “How many things do we want one institution to process.” Also, while we shout, harangue and TV debate our way to answers, Yadav, like Dey throws in another cautionary word.
“How institutions perform is not a function of how the law is worded. The word of law can be stronger or weaker and it only partly influences how institutions function.” Look for instance at the Indian Election Commission. More or less dead until election commissioner TN Seshan arrived on the scene in 1990. Not one word of law was changed. But overnight, the institution was transformed into an important watchdog and pillar of the Indian democracy.
“Any kind of institution that comes along — new or old, basket or single — if it is driven by the anti-corruption movement in the country, it will perform better. If it is driven merely by an administrative- bureaucratic thing, it won’t work.”
Therefore he says, the new debate on the Lokpal and chorus of different voices is actually all good. Sign that even though we are blighted by the dark clouds of scams; we are now firmly living in the time of Lokpal. Which even when it seems weak or beaten out of existence by an unwilling government, is rising, phoenix-like, and from the ashes of the old, ringing in anew.
Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.