India shows Lokpal not needed

India shows Lokpal not needed

You could certainly call it a nationwide Anna effect—but a wave of actions against corruption and governance failures appears to reveal little need for a Lokpal, the proposed all-powerful national anti-corruption ombudsman.

Monday’s arrest by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) of powerful former Karnataka tourism minister G. Janardhan Reddy and the managing director of his mining company is independent of corruption charges filed last month by the Lokayukta against former chief minister, B.S. Yeddyurappa, and the shock arrest of his former industries minister, accused of selling public land for private profit.

“My report had nothing to do with the CBI action," said former Lokayukta justice Santosh Hegde, an indication of the inherent strength of various agencies. The Lokayukta mining investigation unfolded in Karnataka over five years; the CBI investigation of the Reddys in Andhra Pradesh took two years.

A series of recent actions in other states is more evidence that existing agencies and governments are capable of becoming serious in the fight against corruption—if they are determined and so empowered. Some states, reacting to rising public expectations, are passing new laws to punish officials for administrative failures. Consider:

•On Monday, suspended Bihar Indian Administrative Service officer S.S. Verma—accused of having illegally earned assets of 1.44 crore—became the first bureaucrat to have his house in Patna confiscated under a law called the Bihar Special Courts Act, 2009, which allows such an action during a corruption trial. Special vigilance courts have ordered three such confiscations since last December.

• On Monday, the state cabinet approved the Chhattisgarh Public Services Guarantee Act, 2011, which forces timelines on officials for public services and fines for violations.

•Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati, herself previously accused of corruption and tax dodges, dropped two ministers on the recommendations of the state Lokayukta, which cannot prosecute or arrest them.

• Rajasthan has passed a Bill called the Rajasthan Guarantee of Public Services Act, 2011. Officials can be fined for administrative failures.

Without having the kind of powers envisaged for the Lokpal, the Karnataka Lokayukta has been one of India’s strongest, filing charges against hundreds of bureaucrats and politicians, knowing permission to prosecute is rare. Yet, it has exercised the limited powers it has over the past 20 years.

Last month, former Bharatiya Janata Party industries minister and strongman Katta Subramanya Naidu and his corporator son Katta Jagadish Naidu went into a special Lokayukta court joking and emerged weeping when the judge ordered jail, pending trial for corruption charges filed by the agency’s police wing.

While the movement against corruption started by former army driver and social activist Anna Hazare has gained substantial support, many commentators have pointed out that it might be better to empower existing institutions and offer better governance than establish a super-powerful Lokpal with a new bureaucracy. Some argue that the answer lies with political parties, which need to be pressured in this season of public awareness.

“There are honest people in all these parties, people who have been sidelined so far," said S.R. Hiremath, a whistleblower in the Bellary mining scam. “A corruption-free administration is our birthright, like swaraj (self-rule), and we must strive for it."

Samar Halarnkar is editor-at-large, Hindustan Times and Mint

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