New Delhi: Pratyush Sinha retired as India’s central vigilance commissioner on Monday. During his tenure Sinha, a 1969 Bihar cadre IAS officer, conducted several high-profile investigations such as the ones into the allocation of 2G mobile phone spectrum and preparations for the Commonwealth Games (CWG), among others. In an interview conducted in mid-August, Sinha spoke about issues ranging from the whistle-blower’s Act to the collapse of governance. Edited excerpts:
What are the challenges before the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC)?
I tell my friends that this is the most thankless job that I have ever done and second that I have to defend myself for the first time in my career. I have worked in Bihar. It is not an easy place to work and I never had to do this (laughs). But here constantly I have to defend myself. You are damned if you do something and damned if you don’t. Corruption is something which is so palpable. Everyone, you, I, as a citizen we all feel it and as my response or the response of CVC is only part of what is called the institutional response. And, second, it has a geographical spread which is not within our jurisdiction. Among 90% of each complaint which is about corruption are about public persons. The entire perception about corruption is formed by what you see when you go for one of your service. That is 90% almost out of our jurisdiction. It is with the state governments. On state governments we have absolutely no jurisdiction, but the entire impression is formed on that.
I can’t do anything about it. Even the whistle-blower’s resolution of the government of India today limits the jurisdiction to what government of India’s jurisdiction is. The states are completely out of CVC. Many people criticize us without reading the CVC Act.
Are you happy with the way the (whistle-blower’s) Act has been firmed up?
A few things are obvious which would require changes. Fortunately, in the whistle-blower’s resolution which is now coming as a Bill in Parliament some of these flaws have been taken care of. For example, we are a recommending body. Our recommendations are not mandatory. We strongly feel that in order to make any anti-corruption right (measures), effective at some point or at some stage of the process, our recommendations must be made mandatory.
Defining power: Sinha says in order to make any anti-corruption steps effective, the recommendations of the commission must be made mandatory. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
As of now, at two stages, the government consults us. One is when some misconduct has come to light and a view has to be taken what needs to be done about this. That point in time they come to us primarily to find out whether it would require a major or a minor find. This again is a recommendation. Then, in the case of a minor penalty, there is no formal inquiry. There is a whole list of punishments which are classified as minor punishments and can be given. At that stage they consult us. But if a major penalty has to be given then an enquiry takes place which is called oral enquiry. That means an enquiry officer is appointed and a presenting officer is there who presents the case of the department, based on which the charges have been framed.
The officer has the right of repudiation and then a view is made by the investigating officer about whether the charges have been established, to what extent and whether it should not be voiced. That recommendation comes to DA (disciplinary authority) and then DA will again come to me, which is called second stage. Whether charges are proved they consult us on this and if yes, then what would be an appropriate punishment for the officer. So that is called second stage. Today, both are recommendatory in nature. The DA has the power to decide and in some cases they also have to consult UPSC (Union Public Service Commission) for certain categories of officers before the punishment is awarded.
Now, we have to justify to the government to make it first one stage, there need not be two stages but that should be mandatory. Perhaps it is not possible in our scheme of things that you take away the powers of the disciplinary authority because it is the employer. The employer must have the final say in the matter. But if I recommend from the vigilance commission that enough evidence is available about the misconduct of the officer and it deserves a major penalty then at least that process must be gone through. It must be mandatory.
Second, the point that is often raised in the media and elsewhere is superintendence over CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation). Sometimes we also get the flak, but again this is not based on the proper appreciation of the CVC Act.
Even today administrative control over CBI is of the ministry of personnel. We have been given part of superintendence in respect of cases being investigated by CBI under prevention of corruption. Now that has also been further qualified by another proviso in the CVC Act which says that this would not amount to interference in the investigation of a crime. So that effectively means it is monitoring and reviewing. Now superintendence has been defined in the police manuals everywhere. You go to any police manual and you will find out what is the meaning of superintendence. All the senior officers of the police also derive their power from superintendence. There is nowhere else where the power is defined, but that is not so in the case of CVC. That brings in a kind of ambiguity in the whole thing. I must say CBI generally cooperates with us. When we tell them that this needs to be looked at they never say that they will not give us information.
They are always willing to share the information. But I told you the constraints that we have. All the senior appointments are cleared by a committee which I chair.
So these are the two places where there are interactions with CVC and CBI. So there also is a need for greater clarity. The other thing is that my jurisdiction is not extendable to the political sphere. That is also very clear in the CVC Act. Unless again like in the case of CBI the court directs.
In two cases CVC in the past has looked into allegations against political executive, once in Mayawati case and the other time in a case relating to then minister for urban development Ananth Kumar. And in both instances, it was done at the instance of courts.
Now that poses a problem because it is very difficult to segregate the roles in a major case. That’s where the buck stops. When you are looking into a major case, how do you actually (decide), well you know, that this much I will see and then what happens. So perhaps till the Lokpal thing comes into being this problem would remain because it becomes difficult to segregate the two components in any major case. That also poses problems.
Does the whistle-blower’s Act address these concerns?
I don’t think the political executive is covered, but the thing which is more important is about harassment. Generally, whistle-blowers are not very careful about their identity. They would file a petition, they will give copies to everyone. Apart from CVC, nobody else is under any obligation to hide his identity. It is only CVC which is supposed to seal his identity... Sometimes harassment can take place—mostly transfers. I effectively intervene but they can say: “Sir, we have done it on administrative grounds, he has been here for four years, you know our transfer policy says that after four years he has to be transferred.” Quite often it happens because our whistle-blowers are also sometimes not actually motivated by… Many times, they will come to us and they are facing a departmental enquiry. Today, because they too fear CVC, so if I effectively intervene they will accept, but it is not mandatory. In the new CVC, I can say that “No, you transfer him back” and they shall have to do it. This is how we make it mandatory.
Has corruption reached a tipping point? In one of your speeches you have pegged it at around Rs2 trillion.
Two things bother me greatly. One is the social attitude towards corruption. In India, the most unfortunate part is that the society is no longer seriously concerned about corruption and there is social acceptance. When we were growing up I remember if somebody was corrupt, they were generally looked down upon. There was at least some social stigma attached to it. That is gone. So there is greater social acceptance. This is a kind of paradox. On one side, civil society has become more active in exposing corruption; people are filing PILs (public interest litigations) and various other ways of highlighting corruption, trying to do something about it. On the other hand, in society, there is a general acceptance of corruption. If somebody has a lot of money, he is respectable. Nobody questions by what means he has got the money. Second, the final punishment is becoming increasingly difficult. I am not saying that everything is right with CBI, but there are times they are blamed for things for which they are not responsible.
Look at an average case in the special judge’s court, which is the first court where a chargesheet of CBI is filed—(it) is taking 10 years. We got a survey done for a small pocket of CBI in one of their zones; only 4% people out of all those who were finally convicted actually went to jail. On some ground or the other they went in appeal. One appeal after another, on one ground after another. Same is happening with the departmental proceedings… they take years and hardly any punishment is given. Let me make it more mathematical for you. There would be 20% people in India even today who would be honest, regardless of the temptations, because this is how they are. They have a conscience, they would not be corrupt. There would be around 30% who would be utterly corrupt. But the rest are the people who are on the borderline.
Are we at a point when we are losing the battle against corruption?
I will not say that we are losing the battle, but we have to approach it from different angles. Preventive vigilance will have to be given a lot of importance. That we are doing from the commission. You should cut down on direct contact between a citizen and the person who is going to provide services to him. Technology must be leveraged. Create an atmosphere for honesty. There has to be a commitment.
First and foremost, the political commitment should be there. The press must write about it. Where is the political commitment? I will not name a minister, he is very much here. Everyone knows, nothing happened to him. My report is more than a year old.
What about real-time corruption or incompetence such as in the case of CWG?
One of the major concerns for me in governance is supervisory failure. We have started looking into matters. All this work that is going on in Delhi, you have the whole supervisory level. Why should it be that my engineers go and find out that the quality is inferior? And this is across the system. There are supervisors who never supervise. They never insist on accountability from juniors. External agencies like us can only come in selectively. It is the system which should start working.
The Delhi government has rejected the charges on CWG.
They are technically correct. Which are the agencies involved? DDA (Delhi Development Authority) is not under the Delhi government. CPWD (Central public works department) is not under Delhi government. NDMC (New Delhi Municipal Corporation) is not under the Delhi government. The MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi) is not under the Delhi government, RITES is not... The broader issues remain because they are the coordinators. The overall accountability of the higher formations remain. We will go on with whatever we are doing.
As a person who has been part of the system, isn’t the collapse of this governance scary?
That’s why you have the problems in Naxal areas. It is nothing but the lack of governance... Accountability has weakened in the government at the bureaucratic level.
What happened to the 2G investigations?
We did a very thorough examination of the whole thing. Based on which we found many lapses, which we decided required investigations. It was beyond our officers because persons had to be quizzed. So we made a reference. CBI has already registered a case and is investigating into it. We monitor this.
What happened to the investigation against DGH (director general of hydrocarbons)?
There is a regular case... CBI is looking into certain allegations against him. We also looked into it. We found certain lapses based on which...some complaints were also made. CBI is looking into that. Individual cases I am a little bit hesitant to discuss.
Prima facie, as alleged, was there any nexus between RIL (Reliance Industries Ltd) and DGH?
There was an allegation and our initial report indicated that. But you should await CBI’s detailed inquiry.
Mint had reported about the CWG organizing committee fast-tracking tenders. Are you also looking into it?
They deliberately do such things. But there is a system (by) which we call the snap bids... At the end of it, we will be looking at everything. Our report will be there by November?to?December.
Given your workload, is your team enough?
We hardly have 200 people. That is the major problem with us... Vigilance is not everyone’s cup of tea. It is back-breaking and it is a difficult job. But then we try to get the best we can.