Draft Lokpal bill disappoints, parties cagey

By Prashant Sood, IANS,

New Delhi : The draft Lokpal Bill 2010 is meant to create the institution of an ombdusman that will tackle political corruption, but civil society groups say it will be a toothless body with only recommendatory powers and will also not cover guilty bureaucrats.

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The draft Lokpal Bill 2010, which has been circulated to various ministries for their opinion, provides for filing complaints against the prime minister, ministers and MPs.

However, the bill says the complaints will have to be routed through the presiding officer of the house to which the MP belongs. It also proposes certain limitations on the Lokpal’s jurisdiction over the prime minister.

The bill has sparked an animated debate amid indications that the government is keen to push the legislation to convey its resolve of fighting corruption.

And not without reason.

With allegations of corruption in the 2G spectrum allocation, Commonwealth Games projects, Mumbai housing scandal and delay in unearthing black money stashed abroad by Indians dogging the government, it has tied itself in knots trying to contain the public outrage.

Critics of the draft bill say the Lokpal will not have an independent investigative agency to probe complaints submitted to it and can only make recommendations to the competent authority.

So will the Lokpal be just another committee?

Former Lok Sabha secretary general Subash C. Kashyap said the draft bill was “lip service” to the idea of Lokpal and the institution would be toothless.

“Lokpal will have only recommendatory powers. Only retired judges will be its members and not eminent people from other fields. Lokpal should also have investigative machinery,” Kashyap told IANS.

He said the original concept of Lokpal was based on ombudsman in Scandinavian countries where administrative delay and misuse of official discretion were also under its purview.

“I don’t think the draft bill touches these aspects. Senior bureaucrats have also not been covered (in its ambit),” he said.

Some well-known personalities and rights activists, including Karnataka Lokayukta Santosh Hegde, lawyer Prashant Bhushan, former police officer Kiran Bedi and former chief election commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh have drafted an alternate Lokpal bill called ‘Jan Lokpal Bill’ with the aim of providing a single, autonomous apex body empowered to investigate and prosecute politicians and bureaucrats.

Hundreds of citizens and youth, among them Lyngdoh, marched in Hyderabad Sunday to call for the introduction of the ‘Jan Lokpal Bill’. The alternative draft bill also aims to bring whisteblower protection, currently in the form of a separate bill, within the ambit of Lokpal.

“The present anti-corruption system in the country consists of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC). While the CBI is directly under the government, the CVC is a recommendatory body. In case of departmental vigilance, a person is given the additional duty of vigilance officer. There is need of an independent body,” said Aswathi Muralidharan from Parivartan, an NGO that is convassing support for the bill.

She said the alternative bill aims at creating Lokpal at the centre and Lokayukta at the state level as independent bodies. “They will have the power to initiate investigations and prosecution against any officer or politician without needing anybody’s permission. There is a fixed time limit for investigation and trial.”

Political parties are not keen to jump the gun till the government finalises the bill.

“The Lokpal bill should come. The party will give its reaction after reading its clauses once the bill is brought before parliament,” Bharatiya Janata Party spokesman Prakash Javadekar told IANS.

Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) leader Nilotpal Basu said the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government was talking of the bill to deflect attention from the allegations of corruption surrounding it.

He too said the party will comment on the bill when it is presented before parliament.

Congress spokesman Shakeel Ahmed said the government was holding wider consultations on the bill so that no area remained uncovered. “It is for the government to decide if the bill will come in the budget session or after that,” he said.

Several governments have tried to put in place a Lokpal bill over the past 42 years, with the first legislative attempt being made way back in 1969.

(Prashant Sood can be contacted at [email protected])