Taking action against corrupt officials could soon get harder.
A parliamentary panel has backed a move to bar anti-graft agencies from probing bribery allegations against public servants without the government’s approval.
The government can take up to four months to decide if the police should register the bribery case, and there will be no penalty if it takes longer. However, its sanction would not be required if the official is caught accepting a bribe red-handed.
The proposed move would cover states as well as the Centre, with governments at both levels getting the power to decide on probes against their respective officials.
The Central Bureau of Investigation had opposed the proposal, which intends to protect honest senior government officials, ministers and top managers in public sector firms from undue harassment. It told the select committee – set up by the Rajya Sabha to study proposed amendments to the Prevention of Corruption Act – that such an action would impede the investigation process and delay prosecution of corrupt officials.
Even now, bureaucrats are protected by a procedural requirement after the completion of the probe – they cannot be tried in court without governmental sanction. While the Centre allowed prosecution in 239 cases under this provision through 2015, it rejected 39 requests – mostly pertaining to officials in the banking sector.
The panel, which also okayed provisions to bring the private sector under the anti-graft law by explicitly making it a crime to give bribes, submitted its report in the Rajya Sabha last week. Communist Party of India MP D Raja – who was a member of the select committee – distanced himself from the recommendation.
Raja told HT that he wanted to record his dissent, but had no time to prepare because the last meeting was called during the Parliament session at a very short notice. “Yes, there are some issues... we will raise them when the bill is taken up in the Rajya Sabha,” he said.
Transparency activist Anjali Bhardwaj, who founded the Satark Nagrik Sangathan, a people’s group, termed the amendment as a “completely regressive” step. “I am disappointed... I thought the idea was to make the anti-corruption law stronger, not weaker,” said Bhardwaj, who had opposed these provisions before the panel.
The NDA government had originally come up with this amendment to the Prevention of Corruption Act last year, but proposed that the power to clear FIRs be given to the Lokpal. Unsure of the public reaction, it didn’t want to appear as if it was usurping power.
Not surprisingly, the government promptly agreed to suggestions at panel meetings that the mandate should remain in its hands – and not with the Lokpal.
The decision to protect every public servant from harassment owes its origin to a May 2014 Supreme Court verdict, wherein a judicial bench struck down a provision requiring the CBI to obtain the government’s permission to probe incumbents in all joint secretary-level posts. As the court held that the law cannot discriminate between public servants on the basis of their rank, protection was given to all.