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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Combating corruption

The Administrative Reforms Commission's recommendation that the Constitution be amended to provide for a Rashtriya Lok Ayukta draws attention to an issue raised intermittently only to be quickly forgotten — the need for a national ombudsman empowered to look into corruption in high places. The Rashtriya Lok Ayukta is really a Lok Pal by another name. The attempt to set up such an agency has had an extended and tortuous legislative history; since 1968, Lok Pal Bills have been introduced in Parliament on as many as eight occasions, but failed to mature into an Act primarily because of a continuing disagreement over whether the Prime Minister should be within the purview of the Lok Pal. In recommending that the Prime Minister be kept out, the ARC — just as the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (NCRWC) did in 2002 — seems to have been influenced by the view that permitting the Lok Pal to inquire into charges against the head of government will weaken the office and paralyse the administration. However, leaving the Prime Minister out will only serve to weaken the legislation and fail to send out the message that no one — irrespective of the office he holds — is above the law. The Lok Pal Bill introduced in the Lok Sabha in 1998 specifically brought the Prime Minister within the Lok Pal's ambit, but a subsequent draft altered this provision.
The other reason for the lack of movement to put a central ombudsman in place is the general apprehension in political quarters about the implications of establishing a watchdog armed with quasi-judicial powers. The overwhelming overt support for the Lok Pal conceals a slew of private misgivings about the creation of an ombudsman-like mechanism to address public grievances about corruption, nepotism, and arbitrariness. Apart from the setting up of a Rashtriya Lok Ayukta, the ARC has proposed that it be made obligatory for all States to set up Lok Ayuktas and that their structure, power, and functions be governed by common principles. Currently, they exist in about a dozen States, with varying degrees of power. While a uniform Lok Ayukta system would be helpful, it is important to address the problems that plague the functioning of these agencies such as the absence of financial autonomy and the lack of cooperation from State Governments. The recommendations on these ombudsman-like agencies are but a few of the suggestions the ARC has made in its voluminous report on "Ethics in Governance." But they do focus attention on putting in place an alternative mechanism — one that supplements courts and tribunals — to combat corruption in public life.


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