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3 years since launch, Lokpal is a non-starter. Complaints dry up, questions rise over intent

From ex-judge who resigned from Lokpal to former members of Anna Hazare movement, many say corruption watchdog set up in 2019 is 'toothless' — and this may have been the intention.

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New Delhi: Over a decade ago, an intoxicating tide of moral purpose washed over India. Under the leadership of social activist Anna Hazare, thousands of people across the country staged impassioned protests and demonstrations, all echoing the demand for a watchdog authority — an ombudsman body called the Lokpal — to fight rampant corruption in the echelons of power.

The Anna movement nearly brought India to a standstill for several months in 2011 and created enough pressure to force the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to pass the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013. It took another six years for the current Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government to appoint India’s first anti-corruption watchdog.

However, three years since the Lokpal was set up with much fanfare, not only has it failed to live up to expectations, even the hype around it seems unjustified, begging the question whether it was such a great idea to begin with.

The Lokpal, comprising four judicial and four non-judicial members working under a chairperson, was instituted to inquire into allegations of corruption against national-level public functionaries, including present and former prime ministers, Union ministers, former members of Parliament, and central government officials. But, in the nearly three years of its existence, it’s difficult to recall even one prominent corruption case that the ombudsman has taken up.

According to statistics available on the Lokpal website, a majority of the complaints so far have been frivolous or outside the jurisdiction of the ombudsman. There has also been a sharp decline in the number of complaints, even frivolous ones, over the years. Just 30 complaints were lodged in the first seven months of 2021 (the latest period for which data is available) and there are vacancies in many key posts.

A 2011 India Against Corruption protest in Pune | Photo: Commons

A major indictment about the functioning of the Lokpal came from one of its own. Justice Dilip B. Bhosale, former chief justice of the Allahabad High Court, who was one of the four judicial members appointed in March 2019, resigned on 6 January 2020, just nine months after taking oath, citing personal reasons and lack of enough work.

“I felt I was wasting my time. I was sitting absolutely idle. I used to get around 15-20 cases in a month. As chief justice of Allahabad High Court, I was used to working 14-15 hours a day, handling some 50-100 cases a month. I am told not much has changed since I left. If the Lokpal continues to function in this manner, it will fail to meet its objective. It will not deliver,” Bhosale told ThePrint.

He is not the only one who thinks so. ThePrint spoke to several retired civil servants, judges, and civil society activists — many of whom were closely involved with the anti-corruption movement — who also expressed their disillusionment with the Lokpal.

Ashutosh, a former Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader who was at the forefront of the Anna movement, further said he believed government never meant for the Lokpal to succeed at all.

ThePrint e-mailed a detailed questionnaire to Lokpal chairperson Pinaki Chandra Ghose, non-judicial member Dinesh Kumar Jain, and the Lokpal secretariat about the current vacancies and the status of various complaints filed with the ombudsman, but did not get a response till the time this report was published.


Also Read: On 10th anniversary of Lokpal movement, Arvind Kejriwal has let down those who believed in it


Vacant positions, a crawling start

Two out of the four judicial posts in the Lokpal have been vacant since 2020, including the one formerly occupied by Justice Bhosale and another that belonged to Ajay Kumar Tripathi, former chief justice of the Chhattisgarh High Court, who succumbed to Covid-19 in May 2020.

A government source told ThePrint that appointments are also yet to be made for several key posts in the Lokpal Secretariat, which has a sanctioned staff strength of 124. The crucial positions of director of inquiry (tasked with overseeing preliminary inquiries into corruption complaints) and director of prosecution are still vacant.

Currently, the Lokpal is chaired by Ghose, a retired Supreme Court judge and former chief justice of the Andhra Pradesh High Court. The two serving judicial members are Pradip Kumar Mohanty, former chief justice of the Odisha High Court, and Abhilasha Kumari, former chief justice of the Manipur High Court.

The four non-judicial members are retired police officer Archana Ramasundaram, the former director general of the Sashastra Seema Bal, a border-guarding force; Dinesh Kumar Jain, former Maharashtra chief secretary; Mahender Singh, former member, Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs; and Dr Indrajeet Prasad Gautam, former managing director of the Gujarat Metro Rail Corporation.

Former Supreme Court judge and first Lokpal Justice Pinaki Chandra Ghose | Photo: Swapan Mahapatra/PTI

That the Lokpal has not been fully functional is also evident from the fact that it has not been able to fully utilise the funds budgeted for it since 2019-20. The Lokpal was allocated Rs 101.29 crore for 2019-20, which was later revised to Rs 18.01 crore. In 2020-21, the original allocation was Rs 74.7 crore, which was revised to Rs 29.67 crore. In 2021-22, the Lokpal has been allocated Rs 39.67 crore.

A part of the budget allocated was used to construct a permanent office for the Lokpal in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj Institutional Area, where it shifted in February 2020 from its temporary working quarters in Ashoka Hotel.

However, the watchdog body has never quite got off the ground, according to former judicial member Justice Bhosale.

Before his resignation in January 2020, Bhosale wrote three letters to the Lokpal chairperson to complain about the lack of official work as well as vacancies in various key positions, including in the inquiry and prosecution wings.

Bhosale told ThePrint that he repeatedly requested the chairperson to expedite the framing of rules, in the absence of which the Lokpal was getting frivolous complaints or cases that were not under its jurisdiction.

“The Lokpal is a very important institution for everybody. I kept saying, let’s hold all-India-level conferences and seminars to talk about its role, to create awareness. But my suggestions were not received in proper perspective,” Bhosale said.

“During the first two or three months, I prepared draft rules and regulations with the help of two research students of the Indian Law Institute and presented them to the chairman after inviting suggestions from other members. They were not taken for discussion during my tenure despite my repeated requests,” he added.

On 3 March 2020, the Centre finally notified the rules to lodge complaints with the Lokpal, a year after the anti-corruption watchdog was set up.

Under the law, the Lokpal may take up cases that come under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, and which are alleged to have been committed in seven years before the complaint is filed. The Lokpal Act bars the anti-corruption body from taking up cases that are sub judice or pending before a committee of either house of Parliament or any other authority.

‘Dwindling complaints don’t reflect decline in corruption’

The number of complaints filed with the Lokpal has fallen dramatically since it was set up. While there were 1,427 complaints filed in 2019-20, there were only 30 until July 2021, as mentioned before.

According to statistics available on the Lokpal website, of the 1,427 complaints received in 2019-20, four were against Union ministers and Members of Parliament and 245 were against central government officials. However, a majority of the complaints — 1,219 of them — were dismissed as they were beyond the jurisdiction of Lokpal, while in 89 cases, complainants were advised to file on the prescribed form. In 111 cases, the complaints were either closed after preliminary inquiry, dismissed because they were before other authorities, or directed to other concerned authorities for appropriate action.

In two cases, an inquiry report is pending with the Director General of Income Tax and Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs, and just one case, where the status/inquiry report was received from the concerned authority, is under the consideration of the Lokpal currently.

In 2020-21, 110 complaints were received. Of these, 94 cases were closed after initial examination or after considering the preliminary inquiry report. In 30 cases, a preliminary inquiry has been ordered; out of these, 14 complaints are pending with the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) and Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

In 2021, of the 30 complaints filed till July, 11 have been closed after preliminary examination and the remaining are in various stages of investigation.

According to former Union home secretary Madhav Godbole, the dwindling numbers of complaints should not be seen as a sign that corruption is declining in India, but as an indication that people lack “faith” in the watchdog.

“People do not have faith in the institution because of the way the appointments were made… The selection committee had a preponderance of government representatives,” Godbole told ThePrint. He added that the corresponding institutions of Lokayukta in the majority of states are completely non-functional.

Former Union home secretary G.K. Pillai told ThePrint that the problem with the Lokpal is that it is a highly top-heavy organisation. “As an institution, Lokpal has become toothless. There is no transparency in the system. That is one of the reasons that nobody is coming forward to file complaints,” he said.

Lokpal was ‘not meant to succeed’

Former Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader and senior journalist Ashutosh was one of the most prominent faces of the Anna Hazare movement and in 2012 even published a book about it, titled Anna: 13 Days That Awakened India. He, too, is disillusioned with the Lokpal today.

“The way the Lokpal has been envisaged by the government, it is not meant to succeed,” Ashutosh told ThePrint. According to him, other crusaders of the movement, including current Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, “have been appropriated by the system”.

“The political class never wanted any institution to take corruption head on,” Ashutosh said.

According to him, even civil society leaders are turning a blind eye. “They are afraid that if they raise their voice, action will be taken against them. Where is Anna Hazare today? Why is he not sitting on hunger strike over Lokpal becoming a toothless body? It’s because he is afraid that the government of the day will take him to task,” he alleged.

Justice Bhosale also expressed disappointment about the movement’s leaders falling silent about corruption. “Why have they not come forward with complaints of alleged corruption against the public offices that they claimed were destroying the country? Have they sent a single complaint to the Lokpal?” Bhosale asked.

Right to Information (RTI) activist Anjali Bhardwaj, however, said that the Lokpal law was strong but execution had floundered. “We were part of the drafting process. It’s a very powerful law but is becoming toothless because of the way it is being managed. There is hardly any transparency in the institution.” Bhardwaj told ThePrint.

‘Only opposition parties want a strong ombudsman’

When the Lokpal and Lokayukta Bill, 2013, was passed in Parliament, prominent BJP leaders including Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and Rajnath Singh had supported it and called it a “remarkable achievement”. Singh even said the passage of the bill marked a “historic day in India’s parliamentary democracy”.

Critics have pointed out, however, that though the NDA government finally constituted the Lokpal, it did not do enough to empower it.

Justice Santosh Hegde, Karnataka’s Lokayukta from August 2006 to 2011, told ThePrint that the Lokpal institution exists only “in name” and simply lacks the power to fulfil its mandate of fighting corruption and maladministration.

“The Lokpal has not been given the requisite statutory power or the required infrastructure (to function properly),” he said.

Hegde added that when a political party is in opposition, it fights for a strong ombudsman, but when it comes to power, it does not “fulfil the very demand” it made when in opposition.

According to him, this phenomenon was apparent in the case of the Karnataka Lokayukta, which was established in 1984 but which truly became active in 2001 under the leadership of Justice N. Venkatachala. Hegde said the Karnataka Lokayukta did a great job of fighting corruption for at least a decade. “The Karnataka Lokayukta had filed complaints against three chief ministers of three different political parties that were in power at the relevant time, in the mining scam. It also took action against ministers, MLAs, and IAS officers for their involvement in corruption,” Hegde said.

However, in 2016, the Congress government at the time in Karnataka stripped the investigative powers of the Lokayukta, which were given under the Prevention of Corruption Act, and passed them on to the Anti-Corruption Bureau, an organisation under the control of the state government.

“This itself indicates that no political party or authorities in administration want a strong ombudsman,” Hegde said, adding that watchdogs are kept functional only for optics.

“They do not have the courage to close (these bodies) because of fear of voters. This is clear from the fact that in 2018, when the party that was in opposition came to power, it did not restore the original power of investigation under the Prevention of Corruption Act to the Karnataka Lokayukta,” Hegde said.

(Edited by Asavari Singh)


Also Read: Don’t laugh at Anna Hazare. He was himself the victim


 

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