The Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Lokpal Bill, on corruption and the most pragmatic ways to check it.
Rajya Sabha MP and Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi chaired the 30-member parliamentary panel that presented its voluminous report earlier this month on the Lokpal Bill 2011. The report has points of divergence with both the official Lokpal Bill draft and the Team Anna version. (The Union Cabinet on Tuesday night approved a Bill for the creation of the Lokpal with constitutional status that will have no control over the CBI but brings within its purview the Prime Minister with a number of safeguards.) Excerpts from an interview with Mukund Padmanabhan, held earlier in the day.
At the heart of the upsurge of public anger against corruption, which a strong Lokpal Bill has come to symbolise, is a basic truth. Namely, that our criminal justice system, particularly when it comes to corruption, is constantly subverted by political interference in the work of investigation and prosecution agencies. Do you agree?
I agree with the sentiment but not with the way you put it. I think you are entirely right in that there is a great amount of legitimate frustration about the criminal justice system, the sloth and the inefficiency.
I will not deny political interference. But I believe that its statistical occurrence is highly exaggerated. Also, at least during the last five years of transparency and media scrutiny, it is not that easy for the CBI and the police forces to convert black into white. Lastly, the attempts at political interference may be greater than the actual results because there is a great amount of both judicial and media scrutiny.
So in other words, judicial delay is a bigger problem than the lack of an independent investigation and prosecution mechanism?
Far bigger. The second is definitely there, but exaggerated.
Your preface in the standing committee report on the Lokpal Bill presented to the Rajya Sabha strikes a philosophical note. You state that the Lokpal Bill resides in the limited ex-post facto punitive sphere and is no substitute for significant “prophylactic” initiatives. It’s impossible to disagree with this, but it raises the obvious question: what have we been doing about preventive mechanisms all this while?
Progress has been made but it has been slow. But during the last year and a half, the progress on corruption — including prophylactic measures — has been remarkable. Unfortunately, in the debate on the Lokpal, which is a very important punitive measure, the prophylactic and policy initiatives have got lost. As I said in my report, sometimes policy is more important than law.
Allow me to list you some of the steps taken. Roughly 62 bilaterals and 20 further one-to-one treaties [have been signed] in the last two years on black money. It now means that there are 80-odd countries around the world that are obliged to give you information on this. The Whistleblowers’ Bill, a recommendation of our standing committee, will come [before Parliament] very shortly. The Citizens’ Charter Bill will possibly be introduced with the Lokpal Bill or in the next session.
The report of the Ashok Chawla Committee [set up to recommend how government allocates key natural resources] has made specific suggestions. According to me, there are three areas — realty, mining, discretionary powers. There is a listing of all the discretionary powers at the Central-government-level in each department, many of which can be abolished. This itself will make a huge difference. On mining, we are on the threshold of a brand new law; the existing mining law is antiquated and breeds corruption. As for real estate, both the Land Acquisition Bill and other policy initiatives on black money will make a lot of difference. These initiatives will have an effect if they are applied synergistically and given at least two years to operate.
Coming back to the Lokpal, there were sharp divisions in the parliamentary panel you headed on key issues. At the same time, you suggested that the dissent was minimal and there was a considerable amount of unity on a range of issues. In what areas do you think the standing committee made advances vis-à-vis the earlier draft of the Lokpal Bill?
This is a very important question. This report is nowhere like a government draft. Chalk and cheese, earth and sky — that is the difference. Our approach has been not merely to look at the Lokpal Bill draft, or the Jan Lokpal draft or the Aruna Roy draft.
Ours has been to see that the overall structure is workable, valid and efficacious. We believe that in many areas the Jan Lokpal is too starry-eyed and idealistic, and not workable. In some areas, we believe the government draft is retrogressive.
So we have struck a new course. Consider the dissent, which there has been a lot of misinformation about. This was not a normal committee report. It was unusual because in two-and-a-half months, it decided on 23 issues, not just one or two like most committees. Of the 23, there was absolute unanimity on 12 issues. Of the remaining 11, in three issues there was a majority of 29 and only one dissenting voice. On another six, there were 22 for and eight dissents. There was real dissent only on two issues — the CBI (20 to 10) and the inclusion of the lower bureaucracy (17 to 13).
But going by Team Anna and the attention they receive in the media, aren’t these issues the nub? And on the question of including the Prime Minister under the Lokpal, the standing committee left this to Parliament…
Sorry, but there is no dissent there. I could have given the majority view which was for inclusion with deferred prosecution. I was excessively reasonable in putting forward three [divergent] views, all of which had resonance.
Team Anna alleged that by leaving the Citizens’ Charter and the lower bureaucracy out, you had disrespected Parliament and violated the Sense of the House resolution passed in August.
This is a complete misunderstanding. Look at what the Finance Minister said in his reply to the debate in Parliament, which is quoted in the report. He said, “This House agrees in principle on the Citizens Charter, Lower Bureaucracy to be brought under Lokpal through appropriate mechanism and establishment of Lok Ayuktas in the States.” What this suggests is that we must pass a law on the Citizens’ Charter, which we are doing. As for the Lok Ayuktas, we have recommended a common Lokpal-Lok Ayukta Bill, something that goes against the government draft. Being under the Lokpal only applies to the lower bureaucracy. But look at the resolution closely. It says the lower bureaucracy must be brought under the Lokpal through an “appropriate mechanism”…
…Which you imply you have addressed by making the Central Vigilance Commission, which will cover the ‘C’ and ‘D’ level employees, accountable in a way to the Lokpal?
Yes, there is a method to the madness. We don’t want a top-heavy Lokpal set up. We want it to be lean, mean and efficient. To prevent a new organisation from becoming top heavy, if you utilise the CVC, which for the first time will have ‘C’ class employees under it, aren’t we improving the situation? The CVC will then be obliged to file two or three monthly reports to the Lokpal, which will then issue advisories on the basis of this.
The standing committee has recommended both Group ‘A’ and ‘B’ officials come under the Lokpal, unlike the government draft which included only ‘A’. We made a huge jump — this is being forgotten in the controversy. From ‘A’ to ‘B’, the group comprises everyone down from Prime Minister to Section Officer.
Wasn’t the Lokpal conceived as a new mechanism to deal with medium-ticket and big-ticket corruption? Or was it to go below level ‘C’ and include drivers, clerks and peons?
I am not suggesting that drivers and peons are not corrupt. But the Section Officer is the first to write an opinion on the file. From there on it goes upwards. We have said that the ‘C’ group which was not covered until now should come under the CVC. What wrong have we done? They speak as if we have cheated the nation.
There is also a certain amount of misinformation circulating regarding the CBI and investigation. The report deals entirely with Lokpal-referred investigations. The suggestions in it regarding preliminary inquiry, abolition of sanction, separation of investigation and prosecution et cetera are all recommendations made in the context of Lokpal-referred investigation.
It does not seek to deal with a large number of other cases dealt with by the CBI, including murders or those referred to the agency by the higher judiciary.
Isn’t it odd that a legislation to check corruption in government should include NGOs, corporates and the media? This seems a little like tit-for-tat. The NGOs and the media wanted strong legislation against official corruption, so lets put them into the net as well.
This is not true. We have included only NGOs, companies, associations, trusts owned or controlled by the government or those that receive large public donations. The other test is whether they receive donations above a certain amount under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act. There are figures to show the volume of foreign funding is enormous and the accountability of this is very limited.
And this is necessary? Wouldn’t it dilute the work of a lean, mean Lokpal?
This is necessary because you are dealing with corruption. Today, corruption is accountability. Look at the United Kingdom Bribery Act, a remarkable piece of legislation, which applies to literally everybody — the public and private sectors, U.K. firms acting abroad, non-U.K. citizens acting in the U.K. We have said we need a model like this in tackling bribery. You can’t draw artificial Chinese walls when it comes to a particular sector.
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