‘There are lessons to be learnt from the RTI act’

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By Revati Laul

Wajahat Habibullah,
Wajahat Habibullah,
Chairman, National Commission
for Minorities
Photo:Lakshman

People are scared that sentiment is overtaking actual observations on the draft of the Lokpal Bill. What do you think of the draft?
At present, the Lokpal is like a Leviathan. The groups have been given so many responsibilities that they won’t be able to do anything. It is an anti-corruption organisation. It’s not a grievance redressal organisation.

What about the Lokpal taking on the investigating role of the CBI under its wing?
I don’t see any problem with the CBI coming under the Lokpal if  it retains its independent structure and organisation. But it should report to the Lokpal on cases of corruption.

There is this fear that the Jan Lokpal has sweeping powers, both executive and judicial. 
Charges of corruption against the Lokpal go to the Supreme Court and against the Supreme Court to the Lokpal. So that kind of balances things out. But you can’t make the police responsible to the Lokpal. That’s transgressing on the separation of executive and judiciary. It should have its own police force to investigate.

There have been questions about how the Lokpal is chosen. What do you think?
The process of selection of the Lokpal is so complicated that I suspect they will never succeed in appointing a Lokpal. There’s a committee of about 20 members, all from diverse backgrounds. It should be workable. I have suggested that they have a system like the Supreme Court collegium.

Should the Lokpal Bill also include the protection of whistleblowers in the Act?
You can’t give too much to the poor old Lokpal. What is a whistleblower? Is a whistleblower also going to be somebody who works in the private sector? If you have that, will the Lokpal be in a position to look into that also? What is given to the Lokpal should be workable.

How do you create a structure that’s effective and accountable at the lowest level?
I would suggest that the Lokpal have the authority to appoint the head of vigilance in every single ministry in the government. How many people he needs under him is something he can decide. You could have an additional secretary, agriculture, who also looks after vigilance in that ministry for instance. That’s how it can work. The same at the state and district and panchayat levels.

But won’t existing administrators fear retribution from within the government?
The Lokpal has the authority to select people. The Lokpal itself will be independent. It will have nominees inside the government. If government officers are posted to this position, where they are reporting to the Lokpal, they can’t be victimised. It will obviously have to be someone at a senior level. It will be difficult to victimise an officer of that kind.

From your RTI experience, what would you say are cautionary tales that shouldn’t be repeated?
It should not be that the Lokpal is dependent on the government for its finances, for its staffing. So that the government is going on sending people there who are the rejects from the government and they can’t do the work and the Lokpal is going mad, wondering what to do. It should be a totally independent organisation with all the authority to recruit its own staff, run its own organisation and have a budget that it can rely upon without reference to the government.

What do you have to say to people who have called this movement jingoistic?
Well, there are also those people involved in this. People who are not really distinguished in their exercise of safeguarding democratic norms, of involving the people, the public in their work. I don’t want to name anyone. You can yourself judge. But the positive side is, even those who may be jingoistic, are now participating jointly in bringing about a protection of the democratic process, so one can’t have any complaint against them. Democracy doesn’t only mean having elections. It is transparency, accountability and public participation in governance. And increasingly, India is showing the way.

Revati Laul is a Correspondent with Tehelka
[email protected]

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