Why is the Congress defanging the lokayukta?

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Roadblock Justice Bhaskar Rao is against the revised Bill
Roadblock Justice Bhaskar Rao is against the revised Bill. Photo: KPN

The Lokayukta was instrumental in exposing the multi-crore mining scam in Karnataka. The ombudsman’s reports on the illegal extraction and smuggling of iron ore from Bellary led to the downfall of mining baron Gali Janardhan Reddy and CM BS Yeddyurappa.

Never before had an anti-graft institution been solely responsible for the downfall of a regime in Karnataka. But all that is set to change if the Congress government has its way. If allowed to pass, the proposed new Lokayukta Act will undo what the ombudsman has done for the past five years in meticulously and persistently going after corrupt politicians and bureaucrats.

The new Bill’s provisions not only curtail the Lokayukta’s power but undermine the very institution in carrying out its duties as an anti-corruption ombudsman. An attempt has been made to insert clauses into the Bill that would take away the Lokayukta’s voluntary powers in pursuing cases related to Cabinet ministers and top bureaucrats.

Consider this: In chapter 6 of the Karnataka Lokayukta Bill, 2014, the document says that in order for the Lokayukta to conduct raids and investigate the chief minister, ministers, MLAs and officials of the state government, it should get the nod from at least two-thirds of a nine-member panel representing two serving and two former IAS officers, a reserved SC/ST candidate and four members of the judiciary, which is contrary to how the Lokayukta functions now, where an additional director general of police can initiate an inquiry empowered by the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988.

Interestingly, the Bill mandates that prior to ordering an investigation, the Lokayukta should seek an explanation from the public servant in question to determine whether a prima facie case exists or not. If it decides to probe, it should complete the exercise within six months.

Further, in clause A, sub-section 2, it says that the records of the inquiry shall not be published or made available to anyone, thereby barring the media and general public from legally accessing documents — a violation of the fundamental principle of the Right to Information. The gag on giving information to the media has been specifically spelt out in clause 23 (chapter 6) of the Bill, which states that the Lokayukta should not go to the media during the preliminary inquiry of investigation.

Probably, the biggest blow that the new Bill deals to the current institution is to split it into two sections — the vigilance wing and the anti-corruption bureau. “The proposed move takes away the power of prosecution and investigation from the police and hands it to the State Vigilance Commission headed by IAS officers,” says former Lokayukta Justice Santosh Hegde. “How will the bureaucrats fight corruption when they themselves are the culprits in most of the corruption cases?”

Justice Hegde questions the need for a change in the law when the current Lokayukta Act has served the state well for the past 30 years. “The new Bill does not address the issue of maladministration at all,” he says. “During my five years as Lokayukta, there were more than 24,000 complaints filed on maladministration. Contrarily, I received only 1,000 complaints on corruption.”

Due to the objection of the incumbent Lokayukta, Justice Bhaskar Rao, the Congress government has deferred the presentation of the Bill in the current Assembly session. The Opposition has called for a debate on the Bill. But Law Minister TB Jayachandra stands firm, claiming the proposed Bill will make the Act even stronger. He cites several instances where the Lokayukta bungled up in its investigation and ended up accusing the wrong persons.

However, activists allege that the new Bill was drafted to protect the corrupt. “During the heydays of illegal mining, the state exchequer lost more than 600 crore due to the actions of just six IAS officials who were successive directors of the Mines and Geology department,” says anti-mining activist SR Hiremath, who has led a relentless campaign against mining companies and corrupt officials. “All the indicted officers are now principal secretaries of various departments in the state.”

Hiremath believes that these officers and bureaucrats colluded in drafting the Bill in order to save their skin. “The Bill was not even part of the Cabinet meeting,” he says. “It was cleared at the last minute. You can guess the vested interests who want a weak and diluted Act.”

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