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Lowdown on Lokpal

In the long wait for a Lokpal, have we diluted the nature of the ombudsman?

In a historic move, retired Supreme Court judge Pinaki Chandra Ghose was appointed as the country’s first ever anti-corruption ombudsman—or Lokpal—after a PM-led selection committee comprising Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan, Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, and senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi agreed on his name.

By the turn of the millennium, corruption in Indian society—even among agencies such as the country’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI)—had led to a waning public trust in the system. Thus arose the need for an ombudsman to root out corruption and fight against administrative malpractices.

Let’s take a closer look at the Lokpal’s slow walk to fruition.

The word has been derived from the Sanskrit loka which means people, and pala  meaning protector—ergo, “protector of the people”. According to a Rajya Sabha document, it took India almost 45 years to enact the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013. The Bill was introduced for the first time in the fourth Lok Sabha as the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill, 1968. Since then, the Bill has been introduced nine times: in 1971, 1977, 1985, 1989, 1996, 1998, 2001 and twice in 2011.

Parliament finally went on to pass the Lokpal Act in 2013, with the Congress-led UPA in power at the time. The law provided for a Lokpal at the Centre and Lokayuktas in states which would be vested with the responsibility of investigating cases of corruption against elected and public servants. The Act provided for a selection of a chairperson and members of Lokpal by a committee consisting of the Prime Minister, Lok Sabha Speaker, the Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, the Chief Justice of India (or a sitting SC judge nominated by him/her) as well as an eminent jurist to be nominated by President of India on the basis of recommendations from the first four members of selection panel.

However, even though the Lokpal Act was added to the Constitution, India was still a long way from appointing members of the Lokpal committee, let alone the Lokpal itself.

With the Lokpal appointments still arbitrary and vague as of April 2017, the apex court stated that there was no justification to put the appointment of Lokpal on hold. A bench of Justices Ranjan Gogoi and Navin Sinha was delivering judgement in a batch of public interest litigations filed three years ago by NGO Common Cause and Just Society. The case seeking appointment of Lokpal and Lokayuktas was being argued by senior advocate Shanti Bhushan and advocates Prashant Bhushan and Gopal Sankaranarayanan, who wanted the Chairperson and members of the body to be appointed as per the amended rules framed under the 2013 Act.

During the course of the hearing, the SC turned down the Centre’s argument to keep the Lokpal Act in suspension and said that the Act, as it stood in its current form, was enforceable. Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi had earlier submitted to the court that there wasn’t any clarity on who the “Leader of Opposition” was and also stated that the Lok Sabha had declined to accept Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge as the Leader of the Opposition.

NGO Common Cause played a pivotal role in the fight for Lokpal during the new millennium. According to its director and CEO Vipul Mudgal (who was appointed to the post in 2015), the NGO first got into the issue sometime around 1995.

“The movement has been going on for a very long time since the 1960s I think, but according to me, it (the movement) gained momentum only in the 1990s,” Mudgal says. When asked whether the Lokpal movement has been weakened by the delay, Mudgal remains optimistic but doesn’t shy away from pointing out the irregularities. “One should have some optimism and hope. This is a defining moment of a generation.”

Others who fought for the cause feel let down. Social activist Anjali Bhardwaj—who is co-convenor of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information—wrote a piece titled “How Not to Appoint a Lokpal” earlier this month. She explained how “an independent and credible Lokpal has been sacrificed at the altar of short-term political gains” under the leadership of a self-proclaimed chowkidar.

She points out how, with just three weeks to go till the 2019 Lok Sabha election kicks off, the process of appointment of Lokpal and its members has been completely compromised in at least two ways. “The first is by having a preponderance of government representatives and nominees on the selection committee responsible for recommending names for the position of chairperson and members of the Lokpal,” she wrote. “Second, the working of the selection committee of the Lokpal has been shrouded in secrecy.”

Speaking with Newslaundry, Bhardwaj says: “There has already been a regressive amendment to the law when it was amended in 2016. The Lokpal was set up to look into cases of corruption. One of the cases it can catch is if someone has disproportionate assets to their known sources of income. Public servants take houses and property, etc., in the names of their relatives. The original law said there should be disclosure of assets and liabilities of public servants and their families. The law was amended to say that this clause will be changed and whatever the central government decides only that will be disclosed. For bureaucrats, there is no disclosure of the assets and liberties of their spouses and children. Benami property being held in illegally amassed wealth. This (amendment) was a big blow to Lokpal. Even though the law was passed in 2014, in the last five years, there has been no LoP at all. Now, of course, there has been an appointment of the Chairperson and its members but the way that the appointments have been is absolutely against the spirit of the Lokpal even though it has been demanded since the 1960s and the final push for Lokpal happened in 2011.”

Bharadwaj says the toughest part of the movement was to get the law passed, since “no political party wants to be held accountable”. But even after the passage of the law, no government wanted to ensure the law works. “That is why we’re saying this government did not take the necessary steps in facilitating the appointment of Lokpal. Therefore, the big challenge for the past five years has been to get it implemented and then how to save Lokpal from amendments and dilutions.”

Asked if the implementation of Lokpal was like two steps forward, but one step back, she says: “Going ahead, they must function in as transparent a manner as possible and work without fear or favour.

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