Wednesday, September 7, 2011

I support Times of India version of Lokpal Bill, with all due credit to Anna Hazare and his team.

The Anna Hazare-led civil society movement cannot be faulted for having come up with its version of the Lokpal Bill, because otherwise it would have been accused of campaigning for something essentially negative - the withdrawal of the flawed government version without putting forward an alternative. Frustration with everyday corruption - as well as the spectacular kind that explodes in the public sphere ever so often ( Commonwealth Games, 2G, Adarsh, illegal mining in Bellary district etc) - explains the widespread popular support received by the anti-corruption movement.

The depth of this support, coming from every corner of the country, should tell the government something. While the value of the movement lies in having highlighted the critically important issue of corruption - which has not been dealt with seriously by successive governments - the Jan Lokpal Bill put forward by Team Anna too is flawed in some of its specifics.

If the government Bill is minimalist, setting up a toothless ombudsman with limited powers, the Jan Lokpal is too overarching in its design and could topple under its own weight. It is somewhat contradictory in its approach, in that it envisions a superior layer of bureaucracy to fix bureaucratic corruption. If the government version of the Lokpal Bill can be likened to a cop with a lathi confronting an AK-47 wielding terrorist, the Jan Lokpal could be the equivalent of the trigger-happy supercop mowing down innocent citizens in his rage to establish order.

A third version of the Lokpal Bill, formulated by Aruna Roy and the National Campaign for Peoples' Right to Information (NCPRI), is superior to both the government version and the Jan Lokpal Bill. We are in sympathy with its broad philosophy, which is to have a series of interlocking bodies which will act as a check on each other rather than a centralised, overarching Lokpal which supervises everything. The way to check corruption is through an architecture of mutually supportive legislation, rather than through a single Bill which is required to deliver a magic bullet. This vision is best embodied in the NCPRI design.

The biggest flaw in the government version is that it excludes many categories of public servants from its ambit - anyone below grade A in the central government, state-level civil servants, the judiciary, the PM while he is in office. Moreover the dice is loaded in favour of the accused, which would make it extremely difficult to bring powerful people to justice and therefore defeat the purpose of the Bill.

For example, while there is no provision to protect whistleblowers, the Bill provides for all incriminating evidence to be made available to the accused even before the registration of an FIR. Moreover, the tough punishment provided for the subjectively determined 'frivolous' or 'vexatious' complaint (two to five years imprisonment) would deter most victims of corruption from lodging a complaint.

The Jan Lokpal Bill corrects for flaws in the government version by including everybody under the ambit of the Lokpal. Besides corruption cases, the Lokpal is asked to look into grievance redressal as well. This leaves it with the unenviable task of policing some four million employees of the central government alone, among many other categories.

Like our present court system, the Jan Lokpal could simply get buried under a backlog of cases. Moreover, too much power would be concentrated in the Jan Lokpal. Complaints against it may be lodged in the courts. But since the judiciary itself will be under the Jan Lokpal, that would have a chilling effect on any judgments against it.

For anti-corruption laws to work, the remit of anti-corruption bodies must be specific and focussed. To have a manageable task on its hands, the Lokpal should focus on corruption cases involving MPs, ministers and senior officers in the central government. If corrupt officers at grade A level are punished, the message is bound to percolate downwards. Besides, there can be other agencies to check corruption at other levels (more about this soon).

For the same reasons the Lokpal should confine itself to cases where public servants are involved, and not stray into cases of NGO or corporate fraud. The government Lokpal envisages harsh penalties for NGOs, the Jan Lokpal and NCPRI versions do the same for corporates. But the job of public servants is to regulate the working of civil society institutions. If public servants were honest and only some corporates and NGOs were corrupt, we wouldn't have so much of a problem as the government can throw the book at the latter using a whole gamut of legal instruments: the Companies Act, the Prevention of Corruption Act, IPC provisions which deal with bribery and corruption, income tax laws, the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act and so on.

The real problem arises when the regulators themselves, ie public servants, are corrupt. Anti-corruption laws will work if we keep the architecture simple, without diversionary red herrings - the government polices civil society, Lokpal polices the government.

Who polices the Lokpal? It could be the Supreme Court, which would entail keeping the higher judiciary outside the purview of the Lokpal. The NCPRI suggests strengthening the Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill as a check on judicial corruption. But a superior solution is to have a National Judicial Commission (NJC), which would look at judicial appointments as well.

If the quality of judges in the Supreme Court and high courts could be regulated at entry, that would be a more holistic way of dealing with corruption. To widen the scope of discussion on judicial practices, the NJC should incorporate a balanced mix of non-judicial members as well (the relevant authority in the current Judicial Bill can induct only judges and members of the legal profession). It may require a constitutional amendment to set up the NJC, but the government could commit to bring in such an amendment within a year.

As for dealing with corruption at other tiers of public service, the NCPRI makes sound suggestions. A strengthened Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) can look at corruption among civil servants below grade A level. State Lokayuktas should be appointed to rein in corruption at the state level.

While a serving prime minister should be under the aegis of the Lokpal, strong safeguards are needed to ensure he is not unduly harassed in conducting the work of government. A full bench of the Supreme Court should be convinced there is a prima facie case and clear the investigation, vicarious liability (due to misconduct of other ministers) shouldn't be considered, national security matters should be kept outside the purview of the Lokpal.

There is need for a strong Bill to protect whistleblowers. Another one should set up a grie-vance redressal commission, to look into redress of grievances not amounting to corruption.

Finally, it's important to remember that corruption cannot be controlled through punitive steps alone. Side by side, we need to reform the system to reduce incentives for corruption. For that we need to look carefully at policies and processes through which scarce resources such as land, spectrum and minerals are allocated. We also need to look at how elections are funded.

High stamp duties, for example, incentivise the undervaluing of property and therefore the setting up of a black economy. Heavily distorted land markets make the rise of a land mafia inevitable. Rs 40 lakh as the legally designated upper limit for electoral spending by a Lok Sabha candidate is ridiculously low and impractical, inviting evasion by successful candidates.

Perhaps, instead of a mechanical cap on spending we need to put in place a full disclosure requirement, whereby every candidate is obliged to place on record all campaign contributions received beyond a prescribed minimum level. For insights into how reforming the system (as opposed to punitive measures alone) could reduce incentives for corruption,

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