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Lokpal Bill

Social activist Anna Hazare’s resolution to commence a fast unto death on the 5th of April was in desperate response to the administration’s dillydallying on the design of the Lokpal Bill. This is intended to provide a framework for filing complaints against corruption by government ministers and officials. About 200 people including high profile members of civil society joined Mr Hazare in his fasting process and unleashed a movement which assumed national proportions, with pledges of support from millions of individuals on networking sites. Vigils of support are being organised across the country with the passionate participation of people from all walks of life. Two days ago, Sharad Pawar, a union minister in the Manmohan Singh cabinet resigned from the Group of Minsters empowered to consider the structure of the Bill. Mr Hazare had specifically identified Mr Pawar as being corrupt and therefore quite unqualified to participate in the discussions that deliberate the contents of the Bill.

The Lokpal Bill was first introduced in Parliament in 1969 and actually received approvals from the Lok Sabha. The basic premise of the Bill was borrowed from some Scandinavian countries where the office of the Ombudsman has played an effective role in checking corruption. The Administrative Reforms Commission set up in 1966 recommended the establishment of a two tier system with a Lokpal at the Centre and Lokayukts in the States. However, it failed to become law as the government was unable to muster adequate numbers in the Rajya Sabha, India’s Upper House. Subsequently, the Bill was introduced 10 times in Parliament but yet remains pending.

More recently, however, in the wake of high profile corruption scandals such as the telecommunication 2G matter and those concerning the Commonwealth Games, civil society took upon itself the challenge to muster wider public support. They argue that government officials, the legislature and the judiciary need to become more accountable to the people and be brought to justice for misdeeds and inefficiency. They believe there remains a serious governance deficit coupled with a rising shortage of confidence within society in the effectiveness and efficiency of the administrative machinery. The people no longer trust those they elect to rule.

Agitations by civil society started due to resentment caused by differences between the draft Lokpal Bill 2010 prepared by the government and an alternate (Jan Lokpal Bill) proposed by members of a group led by Santosh Hegde, a former judge of the Supreme Court, Prashant Bhushan, Senior Counsel, together with constituents of the India Against Corruption movement. The alternate draft has more stringent conditions, more independence (such as that provided to the Supreme Court and Election Commission) and larger powers accorded to the Ombudsman. This the government finds quite unpalatable. For instance in the original bill, the Lokpal (ombudsman) would be unable to initiate actions against complaints received from the general public and may only probe those forwarded by the Speaker of Parliament. Civil society would like the ombudsman to probe allegations of corruption from the general public; have powers to initiate prosecution; be linked to the Central Bureau of Investigation as one independent entity and increase the punishment for those found guilty to a minimum of seven years of imprisonment. In addition, the alternate draft proposes that the judiciary be brought within its gamut that would enable the prosecution of corrupt judges without sanctions from His Lordship, the Chief Justice of India. Moreover, investigations towards allegations of corrupt practices should be undertaken within a specified period of time and in a manner that is transparent.

The coming weeks promise to be eventful. From the look of things, it seems that the government may buckle, as politicians begin to realise that any inaction on their part would be politically disastrous. Ministers privately admit that Mr Hazare, a highly respected individual of Gandhian values, would be silly to take on. His decision to fast until death and the subsequent movement of national proportions that it has generated presently seems unstoppable. The Lokpal Bill 2010, modified in a manner acceptable to civil society may prove to be another significant game changer towards a better India, in the decade ahead.

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