Tuesday, May 31, 2011

An observer's account of public consultation on Lokpal Bill

By Arushi Garg

The fourth public hearing on the Jan Lokpal Bill was conducted on May 26.

As I first reached the venue, a park in the heart of a crowded residential colony in East Shalimar Bagh, New Delhi, I was struck at how deserted the park seemed to be, except for the people who were there to make the presentation, and the children who were mildly interested in finding out what had deprived them of playing space for the evening.

I had read newspaper reports about how the public has been shockingly uninterested in these public consultations, but nothing had prepared me for this. One of the organisers strolled over, smiled and said, “Well, it seems we have at least an audience of one.”

“What are they screening?” asked a lady from the balcony of her first floor apartment. “It’s a movie about Anna Hazare,” responded her friend on the ground. In the face of everything, the organisers did a brilliant job in getting people interested. There were patriotic songs and clips playing before the main presentation started, and one of the coordinators made it a point to keep reminding the people that this was about them, and their problems. People did start trickling in after that, and there was a crowd of about thirty people by the time the presentation ultimately started. This was mainly a documentary describing the flaws in the current legal regime dealing with corruption, the main highlights of the Jan Lokpal Bill, (prepared by the India Against Corruption, hereafter referred to as the Bill) its criticisms, and why the authors considered that these were unfounded. This movie is also available online.

The movie talks about the primary functions of the Lokpal which include primarily the responsibility of rooting out corruption from all public authorities, right “from the Panchayat to the Prime Minister.” All such proceedings are to be concluded within the year, even if this means hiring additional staff. More stringent and innovative penalties than the current ones have been proposed through the Bill. For instance, confiscating the assets of a person when they are acquired through corruption was presented.

In response to concerns surrounding the susceptibility of the Lokpal to corruption, the procedure for appointment of the Lokpal was gone into. Such a procedure includes people from different background, representing many diverse interests so that the selection does not swing in favor of a particular ideology or party. All meetings of both the Search Committee (that prepares nominations) and Selection Committee (that ultimately appoints the members) involved in the process will be recorded and broadcast for the sake of transparency.

Currently the CJI’s permission must be taken to lodge an FIR against any judge. The Bill proposes that a seven member bench of the members of the Lokpal will now make this decision following a public hearing. There are measures to ensure the protection of the complainants so that people can come fearlessly forward.

Today, if a company is accused of getting its work done through bribing government agencies, the investigating agency must collect proof that bribes were given and taken. Since no witnesses are present in such situations, this becomes hard to prove. Under the Bill, if some unlawful act is done for some company, then it will be assumed that a bribe was given.

The Bill also proposed to merge all other agencies investigating corruption under the Lokpal at the central level and the Lokayukta at the state level.
One of the most useful parts of the movie was the response given to the criticisms the Bill is facing now.

For instance, many people have suggested exclusion of the Prime Minister from the jurisdiction of the Lokpal, since this can taint his or her image at the international level. It was forcefully asserted that there can be no greater shame at the national or international level for a democracy to protect a corrupt Prime Minister. Along the same lines, giving the Lokpal the authority to decide on whether the prosecution of judges is to be continued was defended.

Secondly, the Bill has been sharply criticized for trying to cover too much in a single sweep. The critics have suggested that the Lokpal should confine itself to scams of a large scale magnitude and leave the institution of proceedings for every day matters to other agencies. This is primarily based on the fear that corruption is so pervasive that the Lokpal would be steeped in arrears if it tries dealing with everything.

This was countered at four levels. First, it was pointed out that the very point of the Bill was to reach out to the common man by recognizing the pervasiveness of corruption. Secondly, since any complaint has to travel through multiple levels (officer, head of department, vigilance officer and then the Lokpal),it is unlikely that the Lokpal will be overburdened. Third, the Bill provides for the appointment of additional staff in case the complaints are too many to deal with. Fourth, once the first few complaints have been received, this will surely have a deterrent effect and the incidence of corruption will decrease, gradually reducing the workload of the Lokpal over time.

Some have also worried about doing away with other bodies that deal with corruption, insisting that there is no harm in letting these bodies function in addition to the Lokpal. However, this criticism has not brought about a change in the Bill since empirically, none of these other bodies have proved that they are capable of functioning independently and efficiently. In such a scenario, they can only pose an unnecessary burden on our national resources.

These issues are important because they are still contentious, and forms were circulated at the end soliciting the opinion of the viewers on these criticisms to see if the public also regards them as unfounded. This seems to be a good way of making the process more democratic, but I’m not sure how many people ended up actually filling the forms. This attempt at spreading awareness was bolstered with the distribution of pamphlets and video CDs that summarized key features of the Bill. Questions were invited at the end, but none seemed forthcoming.

The organization was done well, but the low turnout was disconcerting. At the end, I was left with the haunting feeling that you can do very little to help a citizenry that doesn’t seem to want to help itself.

1 comment:

Ajay said...

2 things are very clear here:-

1. Probably the intenentions are there to create a corruption specialist Super-Supreme Court. Not bad.

2. The point of mass awareness was raised at every level. What can one do if people dont vote properly in elections? Anna and Team should direct their efforts for these ends.

3. In absence of such grand objectives Lokpal agenda will only serve as a shortcut or quick fix.