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‘Public orders’ such as appointments of police officers have been kept out of Lokayukta’s purview as it is a question of governance, said West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. Photo: PTI
‘Public orders’ such as appointments of police officers have been kept out of Lokayukta’s purview as it is a question of governance, said West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. Photo: PTI

West Bengal Lokayukta Act passed, CM out of purview for ‘public orders’

Amid opposition from the BJP, Congress and the Left, chief minister Mamata Banerjee said she was answerable only to the people of the state, and not to a politician

Kolkata: The West Bengal legislative assembly on Thursday passed amendments to the state’s Lokayukta Act to exempt the chief minister from being answerable to the anti-corruption ombudsman for any “public order".

Amid opposition from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Congress and the Left, chief minister Mamata Banerjee said she was answerable only to the people of the state, and not to a politician.

All departments come under the Act, so it applies to the chief minister as well, she claimed, except for “public orders" such as appointments of police officers and bureaucrats. Because it is a question of governance, it has been excluded from the oversight of the Lokayukta, she added.

The amendment is in line with provisions contained in the central Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act 2013. Even the prime minister has similar privileges, such as with matters relating to defence, Banerjee told lawmakers.

However, Samaresh Bandyopadhyay, a retired Calcutta high court judge who acted as the only Lokayukta in West Bengal between 2006 and 2009, said public order is an “ambiguous" expression.

The state passed the West Bengal Lokayukta Act in 2003, and it has been amended twice before—in 2004 and 2007. However, after Bandyopadhyay’s term ended in 2009, the state has not had an ombudsman.

In March this year, West Bengal was among states rapped by the Supreme Court for keeping the post vacant.

The state will implement the Act within 10 days of the governor giving his clearance, Banerjee said on Thursday.

Leader of the opposition in the assembly, Congress lawmaker Abdul Mannan said the state should seek public opinion on the amendments. The opposition bench also wanted the amendments to be referred to the select committee, but the speaker rejected the demand.

The amended Act also says that no investigation can be launched against “public servants" except with the permission of the state government. The provision dilutes the powers of the Lokayukta, said Bandyopadhyay.

A section of government officials privately said they saw this provision as a potential tool in the hands of the political bosses to exert pressure on bureaucrats and police officers. Those who fall in line with political diktat may get preferential treatment, these officers added.

Pointing at key changes in the Act, Bandyopadhyay said the collegium for appointment of the Lokayukta has been expanded to include the minister for parliamentary affairs. Previously, the collegium comprised only the chief minister, speaker of the assembly and leader of the opposition.

Under the amended Act, any high court judge can be appointed Lokayukta whereas previously only those with the “credentials of becoming a Supreme Court judge" could be given the post, according to Bandyopadhyay.

Also, the latest amendments have removed the provision for the appointment of Upa Lokayukta, or a deputy, he added.

Earlier this month, Tamil Nadu passed its own Lokayukta Act amid protests from opposition parties. While the Act is applicable to everyone including the chief minister, it exempts certain matters such as government contracts, tenders and appointment of key officials.

In Maharashtra, only the chief minister has immunity under the local Lokayukta Act. No other elected representative or public servant has any immunity at all.

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)-led Delhi government in 2015 passed the Janlokpal Bill which provides for an ombudsman with powers to act against any government functionary including the chief minister. However, the bill is still pending for approval.

Dharani Thangavelu from Chennai, Abhiram Ghadyalpatil from Mumbai and Pretika Khanna from New Delhi contributed to this story.

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