Friday, December 23, 2011

Lokpal Bill: Political Parties, NGOs Come Under Scanner

The United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-led federal government has finally introduced in the Lok Sabha the much-debated Lokpal Bill. The Bill envisages creation of anti-graft institutions at the central as well as state levels with a provision for including marginalised minorities and other sections as members.
The government also introduced a separate bill for amending the constitution to confer constitutional status to the proposed institutions.
About New Bill
The all new Lokpal Bill has provisions to probe corruption charges not just against the prime minister and ministers but also against managers, secretaries and directors of religious institutions and political parties that receive donations from the public.
The new clause appears to imply that the Lokpal can inquire into complaints of corruption against managers of temples, gurdwaras, mosques and churches, even sports clubs or any other association which accepts donations from the public.
All NGOs that receive annual grants of more than Rs 10 lakhs under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, 2010 will be under the Lokpal and so will all political parties, because they also receive donations from the people. The catch-all clause would conveniently cover Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) like Parivartan,which Arvind Kejriwal, member of Team Anna, heads and even the NGO being run by another Anna colleague Kiran Bedi and others that reportedly receive funds under FCRA.
But the government has ensured some balance in the provision by offering the coverage of political parties as well. A political party under RPA 1951 is defined as “an association or a body of individual citizens of India registered with the Election Commission as a political party under Section 29 A.” The clause is wide enough to cover all sports clubs or any group of people working for any cause.
Salient Features
* The Lokpal's writ will extend to the Prime Minister (with some exclusions), Ministers, current and former MPs (except in respect of what they say or how they vote in the House), and group A, B, C, and D officers and officials of the Central government.
* Fifty per cent of the members of the Lokpal and Lokayuktas shall be from amongst Scheduled Castes (SCs)/ Scheduled Tribes (STs), Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and women. “Minorities” was added to this quota in the corrigenda circulated to MPs shortly before the introduction.
* NGOs and institutions receiving donations of more than Rs. 10 lakhs per annum from foreign sources will also be covered.
* Lokpal to have constitutional status and be accountable to Parliament
Though some of the suggestions made by social activist Anna Hazare and his supporters find reflection in the new draft, the UPA government's Lokpal continues to differ on several key points from Team Anna's version:
* Government nominees have a majority of one on the selection committee, which will choose the Lokpal's chairperson and eight members
* The CBI will continue to remain under the administrative control of the government and not the Lokpal.
* The judiciary and the citizens' charter are not part of the Lokpal but will be covered by other laws
Provisions Under Old Bill
The old Bill covered the prime minister only after he demitted office and bureaucrats of under secretary level and above. But the new draft law covers all Group A, B, C, D public servants, allowing the Lokpal to inquire corruption by lower bureaucracy, as sought by Team Anna. Others covered are MPs (except for conduct inside Parliament), ministers, government funded associations and NGOs receiving over Rs 10 lakh annual funding under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act.
The new Bill comes quite close (except on the issue of citizen’s charter) to the ‘Sense of the House’ statement issued on August 28 at the height of Anna’s agitation. The statement had stated, “The Houses agree in principle that an effective Lokpal law must cover corruption by lower bureaucracy through appropriate mechanisms, have an in-built grievance redress system and provide enabling laws to establish Lokayuktas in states.”
The present Bill (unlike the old one) provides for Lokayuktas and the Constitutional (116th) Amendment Bill, 2011, introduced, mandates states to adopt Central Lokpal and Lokayuktas law, a provision Sushma Swaraj slammed as anti-federal and an encroachment on the rights of the states, some of which already have Lokayuktas.
Although the Lokpal will have its own Inquiry and Prosecution wings and won’t require prosecution sanction, it would not control the CBI as Anna wanted. It can ask the CBI for preliminary inquiry (PE) and investigation into complaints but the Bill clarifies, “Lokpal will have powers of superintendence over Delhi Special Police Establishment (CBI) in respect of matters referred to it for PE or investigation and can’t direct it to conduct inquiry in a particular manner.”
The Bill says the Lokpal will, after deciding on PE, refer complaints against all government officers to the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC). While the CVC will submit a report to Lokpal for prosecution of Group A/B officers, for Group C/D public servants, it will conduct its own prosecution under the CVC Act, 2003, and send periodic action taken reports to Lokpal. This recommendation was made by Congressman Abhishek Manu Singhvi-led parliamentary panel?s December 9 report on the Lokpal Bill.
The Bill also does not have an inbuilt grievance redress system as Anna wanted. It makes the Lokpal and Lokayuktas final appellate authorities in cases of non-delivery of public service due to corruption but doesn’t guarantee service delivery through Lokpal.
Opposition Against the Bill
Several parties, including the main Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, and the Shiv Sena, the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the AIADMK opposed introduction of the Bill in the current form. The RJD, the SP, and the AIADMK were also opposed to bringing the Prime Minister within the purview of the Lokpal which, they contended, would not be “accountable” to anyone. They were also vociferous in their opposition to a provision which made it mandatory for States to set up Lokayuktas, contending it was an infringement on the “federal structure” and encroachment on the powers of a State government.
The problem, though, now lies outside it. If Hazare's efforts have brought the Lokpal issue where it has now, it would be unfortunate if the same Mr Hazare, out of some millennial spite that mistakes accommodation for weakness, sets off on a different agenda altogether. For at stake here is not who won and who didn't - defining which is about politics, not law-making - but whether a necessary anti-corruption law.

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