One hopes that the hotly contested Lokpal Bill will reach its final denouement during the winter session of Parliament. In fact, the debate on corruption in Parliament and media has focused on the single demand for the establishment of an omnipotent institution of the lokpal with its powers of enforcing the citizen’s charter, establishing state-level lokayuktas and encompassing the bureaucracy from a peon to head of the department. It has been trumpeted to be the panacea for the systemic ills that plague our body politic. The citizens are being assured that the institution would root out corruption from panchayat to Parliament and from the office of the patwari to prime minister.
We overlook the fact that the devil always lies in the details. This oversimplified and hurried attempt to plug the structural loopholes of a failing anti-corruption apparatus is short-circuiting procedural and legal complexities that will challenge the very edifice of the proposed lokpal.
Large-scale corruption is largely within the domain of politicians and key public servants. There is no doubt that corruption exists at the level which directly hurts the common man. But the two varieties of corruption need not be tackled with the same degree of untamed fierceness. ‘Lower level’ corruption can be tackled effectively if senior bureaucrats, politicians and some endemic ills like electoral corruption, black money, illegitimate assets and benami transactions are effectively rooted out.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution. So let the lokpal act as an effective institution only to tackle ‘high level’ corruption associated with politicians and bureaucrats. Having a clear mandate with specialised powers and a select staff will strengthen its ability to tackle corruption in the top echelons of the governmental machinery. The country can add and amend on the basis of experience gained along the way.
Petty corruption, involving relatively small amounts of bribes paid to the 57 lakh-odd Group C and D government employees, can be handled by existing institutional apparatus of the departmental vigilance wings, with the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) at the helm exercising overall supervision. The complexities of laws and rules governing different cadres of public servants cannot be brought into one single definition.
What the current lokpal does is to encompass within its jurisdiction all and sundry, in effect turning itself into a behemoth. With a highly decentralised administrative structure like ours, it would be a logistical nightmare for a centralised institution like the lokpal to handle all cases right from high-profile scams and scandals to ‘speed money’ paid to lower-level public officials. With the danger of functional overreach, there is an added risk of the lokpal collapsing under its own weight.
To handle the millions of complaints that would pour in, the lokpal will need a huge organisational capacity of funds, functions and functionaries. Covering all corrupt practices within its mandate would result in diffusing its power and functions, leaving little room for specialised intervention, focused action and systemic reform. Further, to be able to carry out its functions effectively, it would need a sufficient number of, and adequately trained, personnel. In doing so, there is a chance of the lokpal becoming another parallel bureaucracy, with the remedy being worse than the disease itself. Being a mega organisation has its own set of human resource management issues. This is pertinent in the context of the institution being staffed with the same imperious officers who are part of existing government departments and ministries. The various models of the Lokpal Bill do not throw light on how its staff operation will be different from normal government protocols of service. It is difficult to imagine (or believe) that the DNA of employees stationed in a lokpal office would be significantly different from those working within the government machinery. The hope that it will be different largely stems from the fact that a select team of the lokpal would supervise the overall functioning. Perhaps, we can instill a similar sense of responsibility within the administrative leadership as a whole.
The lokpal, in the name of ending endemic corruption, is abrogating the uniquely federal character of the Indian polity, one which decentralises power and prioritises collective action. Acts of corruption are localised and commonplace. So responses and solutions to address them need to be sought through a multi-pronged, bottom-up process involving local citizens and stakeholders. The lokpal, with its top-down approach, is likely to become yet another officialdom that will impose its authority from above, overriding regional actors.
The government has published the draft Citizens’ Grievance Redressal Bill. Perhaps, the very nomenclature is faulty. It should be the ‘Citizens’ Services Bill’, offering certain specified efficiency in the delivery of services. There is no need to bring it under the lokpal, as it can be a standalone act. Lokayuktas and a state-level Citizens’ Services Bill should respect the federal character of our Constitution. It is best left to the states to enact such legislation as per guidelines issued by the government.
The Judicial Accountability Bill can be strengthened, but it should not be under the lokpal’s domain. Any attempt to subordinate the judiciary to the lokpal would endanger our democratic safety valve. The CVC, on its part, can be revamped and made autonomous to tackle the junior bureaucracy. The anti-corruption wing of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) should be placed under the lokpal. Finally, the post of the prime minister should not be under the lokpal as he is the country’s representative both within and outside the country and must enjoy the mandate of the nation when he travels abroad or meets foreign dignitaries.
The danger of viewing anti-corruption initiatives solely through the prism of the lokpal is that we are left with a blinkered understanding of the causes of corruption. The lokpal does not address what gives rise to opportunities of corruption; it merely attends to its symptoms, leaving the actual source untouched. It remains to be seen whether the lokpal meets its fate as a still-born baby or as the mighty Goliath it’s purported to be by so many.
Nripendra Misra is director, Public Interest Foundation, and former secretary, Government of India
The views expressed by the author are personal