Himachal set to replace ‘toothless’ Lokayukta

By Vishal Gulati,

Shimla : The Himachal Pradesh assembly has finally given the ombudsman autonomy and comprehensive powers to conduct independent inquiries, a prosecution wing and also powers to punish for contempt on a par with the high court.

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But it took over two and a half years to get the law passed, to replace the existing “toothless” Lokayukta system that has been in force in the state since 1983, say political observers.

The bill, passed unanimously Dec 12, is to get the president’s assent.

Congress veteran and Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, who got Himachal Pradesh Lokayukta Act of 1983 passed in his first stint, informed the assembly that the Lokayukta would have the power to punish for contempt, which is not there in the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act 2013, passed by parliament.

As part of a policy of “zero tolerance” against corruption, the bill seeks to establish a more effective mechanism to receive complaints relating to allegations of corruption against public functionaries, including the chief minister, ministers, lawmakers and public servants, he said.

The bill to repeal the old act was initially mooted by the previous Prem Kumar Dhumal-led BJP government.

The assembly had passed the bill April 6, 2012, in the absence of then opposition Congress, with then chief minister Dhumal saying it is “more strong and constitutional”.

The passage of the bill that time was smooth as the Congress boycotted the debate and termed the bill – which later did not receive assent of the president – as weak with most of the powers to initiate inquiry against the corrupt vesting with the chief minister only.

However, that is a feature of the new act too.

“This new bill too delegates maximum powers to the chief minister. How is it possible for the assembly to give prosecution assent against the chief minister? Likewise, it seems absurd for the chief minister to grant sanction against his own minister,” a senior government functionary told IANS.

But there are chances that it could be used as a tool against the opponents to settle personal scores.

“Now the former chief minister and former ministers also come within the purview of the Lokayukta. With the change of guard in the state, the incumbent can give the prosecution sanction against his predecessor just merely on basis of allegations based upon conjunctures,” said the official, who did not want to be named as he was not authorised to speak.

“The bill even lacks powers to take suo motu cognisance on allegations against public servants, including the chief minister,” he added.

Coming out in support of the bill, Revenue Minister Kaul Singh told IANS that the new bill incorporated all the recommendations given by the house select committee.

“The bill will strengthen the existing institutional mechanism. The important component of the bill is the power to punish for contempt on a par with the high court,” he added.

The assembly, in the absence of the opposition BJP, in February this year referred to a house select committee the Lokayukta bill, which proposed a three-member body, comprising a chairperson and maximum of two members.

But the present bill has one-member Lokayukta.

A provision to keep the identity of “whistle blowers” secret and providing them security had also been made in the bill introduced by the BJP government. But this present bill is silent in this regard.

“The Lokayukta will constitute an inquiry wing headed by the director of inquiry for conducting preliminary probe into any offence committed by a public servant,” the Himachal Pradesh Lokayukta Bill of 2014 said.

The prosecution wing, headed by the director of prosecution, after having been so directed by the Lokayukta, can file a case in a special court.

The bill gives powers to the ombudsman to conduct searches and seize documents and provisional attachment of assets.

It will also empower the Lokayukta to recommend transfer or suspension of public servants facing allegations of corruption.

However, the bill was passed with amendments pertaining to annual audit of the anti-corruption institution and posting of status of cases on the website.

The amendments were suggested by Leader of Opposition Dhumal and were incorporated in the legislation.

Justice (retd) L.S. Panta is currently the state’s Lokayukta.