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The Lokpal Conundrum: Steering Between Hardened Stances

By S.G.Vombatkere

24 August, 2011
Countercurrents.org

There have been spontaneous gatherings of millions of people across India and even abroad, to support Anna Hazare's sathyagraha against corruption in society and in governance. The gatherings protested against corruption in general, against arrest of Anna Hazare and demanded his release, and demanded a strong Lokpal Institution (envisaged in the Jan Lokpal Bill) instead of the deliberately weak Lokpal Bill proposed by the Union government. The explosion of public indignation against endemic – and recently epidemic – corruption has been especially intense starting 16 August 2011, the day Anna Hazare began his sathyagraha at New Delhi.

An interesting observation concerning all the demonstrations is that almost all the protestors, and certainly all the prominent protestors, were from the socio-economic middle and upper-middle class. There was a striking absence of daily wage earning people and Dalit organizations. The political class was conspicuous by its absence, conveying the impression that they are shocked by such public spontaneity when mass mobilization in recent times has only been at meetings called by political parties which spend money (obtained from corrupt practices) to “rent the crowd”. Certainly they have been absent because they are aware that the public in general is disgusted with their corrupt practices, especially those involving money and dealings with corrupting business corporations. Also shocking to the political class is that there have been no instances of violence in spite of the charged atmosphere and enormous numbers in the streets over successive days. It may not be far from the truth to say that the political class in general has been scared by the outburst of public indignation against corruption.

The current situation

Apart from the unprecedented din and clamour of support for Anna Hazare, there is concern that the Union government on the one hand and Anna Hazare's group (often referred to as “Team Anna”, a term that we will use here) on the other, are retreating into opposite corners of the political boxing ring. Team Anna opines that the Union Government has produced an unacceptably weak, even a “pro-corruption” Lokpal Bill, citing several reasons. The Union Government adopted a feckless policy, first agreeing to a Joint Committee, then refusing to admit the validity of Team Anna's opinion, acting in haste to arrest Anna Hazare in an abortive attempt to suppress his peaceful movement, and finally ending up on the back foot with his release and agreeing to his continuing his protest fast at Ram Lila Maidan. Government's position continues to be that Anna Hazare's stand is an assault on Parliament and the parliamentary process, and hence unacceptable. This has created a binary situation of “if-you-are-not-with-us-you-are-against-us”, between a government increasingly seen as reluctant to check corruption and Team Anna backed by millions of supporters. This bodes ill for democracy.

In this situation the Parliamentary Standing Committee has called for public comments on the issue by September 4, 2011, indicating Parliament's willingness to consult the public. It is also reported that the Union government has offered to talk with Team Anna, but it may well be because it is wary of repercussions of Anna Hazare's failing health, and not because it genuinely seeks a resolution to the stand-off. This doubt should not be interpreted as cynicism in view of the Union government's track record.

A wide definition of corruption

Corruption is not only financial in nature. Common understanding of the word bhrashtachaara concerns paying or receiving bribes in cash or kind at the level of ordinary citizens dealing directly with government officials, and corruption involved at high (governmental) levels in agreements, MoUs and contracts with large business corporations. But in the wider sense, acts involving large and small scale social and economic discrimination and violence (commonly termed athyachaara) also constitute corruption, and political corruption is a whole separate area. Therefore, while current public focus is only on the financial sense of corruption, the wider issues call for social and political reform.

The Jan Lokpal Bill

The demand of the many millions of people who support Anna Hazare is for the Jan Lokpal Bill as an alternative to the Union government's Lokpal Bill which they reject outright. All thinking people understand the need for strong, institutionalized powers to combat corruption. However, the Jan Lokpal Bill seeks to create a Lokpal Institution with enormous concentration of power which has potential to vitiate democracy.

The sentiments of the huge masses of people who have come out in strong support of the Jan Lokpal Bill and Anna Hazare's deteriorating health cannot be ignored. However, among the millions of supporters of the Jan Lokpal Bill, the number of people who have have had access to the draft(s) of the Jan Lokpal Bill and among them, those who have read and understood it are minuscule in comparison. It is Anna Hazare's peaceful and non-violent initiative that has provided opportunity for people across India to demand accountability from governments concerning corruption. But the “civil society opinion” displayed by the enormous nation-wide support created by Anna Hazare's sathyagraha for the Jan Lokpal Bill is not an indication of its being the best option.

The Third Position

In view of the stand-off, there is need for a “third position” between the opposing and apparently irreconciliable positions of the Union Government and Team Anna. Best expressed by Aruna Roy among others, it rejects the Union government's weak Lokpal Bill and is in complete agreement with the need for a strong Lokpal Institution. But at the same time it notes that the Jan Lokpal Bill will create an unduly powerful Lokpal Institution. This third position is inclusive, and calls for strengthening existing institutions like the CAG and CVC, and creating new institutions that wield power in delineated areas. It overcomes concentration of vast jurisdiction over the length and breadth of government machinery in one institution, as envisaged in the Jan Lokpal Bill. Team Anna's insistence on passing the Jan Lokpal Bill in Parliament by 31 August will vitiate meaningful debate in Parliament.

There is general understanding of the supremacy of We the People and, between the three pillars of the Constitution, in the primacy of the central and state legislatures elected by We the People. Members of Parliament need to be fully aware of the content and the ramifications of the extreme positions adopted by the Union government and Team Anna in order to have a meaningful debate. Thus at this critical juncture there is great relevance of the “third position” proposal to initiate debate. This proposal includes inclusion / creation of the following five bodies, the names or titles of which are not sacrosanct but the functions of which together constitute a system rather than a single, very powerful body that the Jan Lokpal Bill seeks to create:

# Rashtriya Bhrashtachar Nivaran Lokpal (National Anti-corruption Lokpal): An institution to address corruption of all elected representatives, including the Prime Minister (with some safeguards), Ministers and Members of Parliament and senior bureaucrats (Group ‘A’ officers), and all other co-accused including those in the private and social sector. The RBNL will be financially and administratively independent of the government and will have both investigative and prosecution powers.

# Kendriya Satarkata Lokpal (Central Vigilance Commission): Amend the Central Vigilance Commission Act to remove the single directive and empower the CVC to investigate corruption and take appropriate action against mid-level bureaucracy.

# Nyayapalika Lokpal (Judicial Standards and Accountability Lokpal): Strengthen the existing Judicial Accountability and Standards Bill, that is currently before Parliament, to ensure that the Judiciary is also made effectively and appropriately accountable, without compromising its independence from the Executive or the integrity of its functions.

# Shikayat Nivaran Lokpal (Public Grievances Lokpal): Set up an effective time-bound system for grievance redressal for common citizens, to make the government accountable in terms of its functions, duties, commitments and obligations towards citizens. The grievance redressal structure to have decentralized institutional mechanisms going right down to each ward/block level, and ensure a bottom-up, people-centric approach, so that complaints and grievances can be dealt with speedily and in a decentralized, participatory and transparent manner. It will integrate public vigilance processes like vigilance committees and social audits, and provide for facilitation for the filing of all grievances/complaints through the setting up of block information and facilitation centres in every Block (rural) and Ward (urban) in the country. The grievance redressal mechanism will be a 3-tier structure consisting of grievance redressal officers at the local level within the department, independent district level grievance redressal authorities and central/state level grievance redressal commission. It will include and rationalize existing structures.

# Lokrakshak Lokpal (Whistleblower Protection Lokpal): To strengthen the existing Public Interest Disclosure and Protection to Persons Making the Disclosure Bill, which is currently before the Parliament, to ensure appropriate protection of whistleblowers.

The above five institutions are to also be established at the State level where relevant. Staffing of these institutions would be through a common selection process. All these measures need to be brought in simultaneously to effectively tackle corruption at all levels and also provide a mechanism to redress grievances of citizens.

The way ahead

The Third Position is not a solution, but can serve as a starting input for public as well as parliamentary debate that can yield results in keeping with democratic processes. It steers clear of the current polarized positions adopted by the Union government and Team Anna. The five institutions suggested cater for check on corruption by bureaucrats at all levels of governance, for legislators' actions both inside and outside legislatures, check on the judiciary, handling of public grievances, and protection for whistleblowers. A single institution as envisaged in the Jan Lokpal Bill would not be able to efficiently handle this multiplicity of functions.

If the Third Position proposal is introduced in Parliament in the current monsoon session, it can be debated meaningfully and passed in the forthcoming winter session. Having waited for decades, a few more weeks is not a big sacrifice to get an effective Lokpal Institution. It is necessary to repeat that this proposal is not a solution to the problem of corruption. Electoral reforms, land reforms, police reforms, land acquisition and rehabilitation and resettlement laws etc., will also need to be formulated by government in consultation with people, without creating a situation like the current stand-off. This will call for political sagacity and faith in the Constitution among the political class at State and Centre.

S.G.Vombatkere retired as major general after 35 years in the Indian military. He is engaged in voluntary social work, and is member of the National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM) and People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). As Adjunct Associate Professor of the University of Iowa, USA, he coordinates and lectures a course on Science, Technology and Sustainable Development for under-graduate students from USA and Canada. He holds a master of engineering degree in structural engineering from the University of Poona and a PhD in civil structural dynamics from I.I.T, Madras. Email: sg9kere@live.com

 

 



 


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