The Narendra Modi-led cabinet on Wednesday decided to bar all anti-graft agencies from probing any public servant on bribery charges without the lokpal or lokayukta’s approval, in keeping with the Prime Minister's promise to protect bureaucrats.
The new provision that would put the shackles back on anti-graft agencies such as the CBI and hobble the lokpal will be part of the amendments to the Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill 2013 pending in the Rajya Sabha to shield honest civil servants from harassment.
The decision also raises the maximum penalty for bribery from 5 to 7 years and pledges to complete trials within 2 years from an average of 8 years at present.
The Cabinet’s approval to a paradigm shift in the way corruption is handled came a day after finance minister Arun Jaitley told the CBI to distinguish between genuine error and corruption. The proposed amendments make this distinction.
But the amendments, which explicitly make giving bribes a crime, will give CBI a free hand to book bribe-givers. It will not matter if the bribe was extorted out of a citizen, say a rickshaw puller, or not.
The Modi government had initially proposed to withdraw the UPA’s Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill pending in the Rajya Sabha, and introduce a fresh version.
But it eventually decided to tweak the UPA’s version after worries that the opposition – that has a majority in the Rajya Sabha – could send the bill to a standing parliamentary committee again.
Government sources said Modi, who has prodded civil servants to fearlessly take decisions on more than one occasion after riding to power last May, was keen to get parliamentary approval for the changes before the government’s first anniversary next month.
The controversial provision -- making it mandatory for probe agencies to get clearance from the lokpal or lokayukta before probing any public servant for corruption -- is one of the fresh changes proposed by the NDA government.
The Supreme Court had last year struck down a provision that prevented the CBI from probing joint secretary-level officers without government permission, holding that there could not be two sets of law for public servants.
The provision works around the judgement by reintroducing the protection to all civil servants, right from a peon to a secretary and minister. If there is no Lokpal or Lokayukta, the government will decide which authority will grant this permission.
No permission will, however, be required if the official is caught accepting a bribe red-handed.
Once the probe is complete, investigators will need to seek another approval – this time from the government – to prosecute the civil servant for corruption. This protection – which only covered serving officials, MPs and ministers – will be valid long after they retire.
In the courts, the probe agency will not only have to prove that an official took a decision that benefitted private parties but also that he made money out of the deal.
Once convicted, however, the amendments prescribe a minimum three years jail for both – bribe givers and takers – and a maximum sentence of 7 years, up from the existing six months and 5 years punishment.
“The seven year imprisonment brings corruption to the heinous crime category,” an official statement on the cabinet meeting said.