Can We Sustain The Jan Lokpal?
Gandhian Anna Hazare fasted for 12 days in Delhi’s Ramlila grounds to press for a strong, citizen’s ombudsman bill. The Jan Lokpal Bill, which is positioned as a strong citizen's ombudsman bill at the federal level has been the subject of contentious debates between Government and 'civil society’. Largely because the Government has had a Bill in the works for many years - which Anna Hazare’s team rejected as toothless. You can get a sense of the background of the Bill at the PRS India website here.
Some 18 states in India already have Lokayuktas, a state version of the ombudsman. Surprisingly, not all states (28 states & 7 Union Territories) have signed up despite the fact that an Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) headed by former Prime Minister Morarji Desai originally recommended the setting up of the Lokpal and Lokayukta in 1966! The first states to set up were Bihar in 1973, Uttar Pradesh in 1975 and then states like Delhi in 1997, Assam in 1985 and Kerala in 1999.
The head of the Lokayukta is typically a former Chief Justice of any High Court in India or has been a High Court Judge for seven years. There is a Upa-Lokayukta who sits above the Lokayukta and comes from a similar background. Going by the functioning of the Lokayukta so far, there seem to be a few takeaways:
1. The Lokayukta lacks teeth. It can investigate but not hand out punishment. It recommends and the state may or may not act on that.
2. The Lokayukta is under-resourced, particularly given the litany of complaints and grievances. In most cases, it’s quite likely that citizens barely know of its existence and don’t even file. The track record does not help either.
3. The body is funded by the state Government and staff comes from various departments, notably the police for investigation. There is a clear lack of a 'Chinese Wall’. Only the head (as far as former High Court judges go) is clearly independent.
4. In most cases, positions including the top one lie vacant for years. This has been the case in Gujarat which has not had a head for seven years now. Leading to an interesting battle between the state's Governor and the Chief Minister with the former appointing one suo moto. Many other staffing positions also have been vacant in many Lokayuktas, indicating a clear capacity problem in this or related institutions.
We looked at Annual Reports for the states of Haryana and Andhra Pradesh and some orders passed in Delhi. The complaints are mostly in the areas of pensions, encroachment and various kinds of 'harassment’. Take the case of Ms A. Padma, a retired school headmistress from Secundrabad (AP) who filed a complaint saying the Senior Assistant & Auditor in the office of the District Educational Officer demanded 5% to pass her pending accounts. Ms Padma said (in the complaint) that she would not pay. So her papers did not get passed. Then she approached the Andhra Lokayukta who summoned the department and got her dues cleared. No punishment though.
Delhi seems to be dominated by promotion-demotion type departmental battles like this one, where finding solutions can be onerous at the very least. The Haryana Lokayukta’s Annual Report is more a one man’s rant against the system, reflecting utter helplessness and bubbling anger. He observes for instance in the 2009-10.
Annual Report that there are numerous encroachments on Panchayat Land but no action taken by authorities to remove it. Moreover he says, this supports the general public grievance that the encroachments are in collusion with the Sarpanches or Panches (village heads) and their supervisory authorities.
“Its is not possible to believe that such blatant encroachments do not come to the notice of the authorities and their failure to take action against such encroachers leads to a very strong presumption of their collusion with the encroachers for extraneous considerations including the acceptance of bribe.”
N K Sud, Lokayukta, Haryana, Annual Report 2009-10
You can see the whole report here and the final version here. Mr Sud, a former Punjab High Court judge retired after this report and was quoted in a newsreport in April this year saying the body itself was toothless.
The Lokayukta experiment (difficult to be called more than that) has worked effectively in some states at least in a few cases. Karnataka is perhaps the best example of its capability inasmuch as Lokayukta Santosh Hegde (a former Supreme Court Judge) went after the state’s Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa for his involvement in illegal mining operations in the state. In some other states, the Lokayukta does seem to be helping victims of the worst kind of government bureaucracy; denial of benefits.
Which brings us to the larger questions. First, is the Lokayukta likely to be effectively funded. ? While the amounts (possibly Rs 100 to Rs 200 crore annually though you can extrapolate for yourself) are not large, remember the primary system of law and justice itself is severely under funded. The Ministry of Law & Justice had a budgetary allocation of Rs 1,394 crore ($310 million).
This includes the 21 High Courts and their benches in various states in India. The Supreme Court, housed in New Delhi, had an independent allocation of approximately Rs 100 crore ($22 million). There are some 600 district courts which are set up by the states to which the districts belong but report to the High Court. Other subordinate courts in the states include the Family Court, Criminal Court and the CIvil Court.
There are some 31 million cases pending across Indian courts. One estimate says it will take 320 years to clear the backlog. Other estimates say there are less than 15,000 judges against a sanctioned strength of approximately 17,600 including 630 High Court Judges.
Power To Prosecute ?
So that's the system which is stretched, to say the least. Second, even if funding and resources were lined up for the new and improved Lokpal, the efficacy will depend on the powers to prosecute and punish. Else, few will land up even to file complaints.
Its possible that there could be a strong federal anti-corruption law since it will be the cynosure (and already is) of all eyes and thus well resourced. But the real problem of corruption is in the millions of pension to encroachment cases that the reports here refer to.
Most involve older citizens who are being given a royal runaround and almost all are spread across the length and breadth of India. The solution to some of these problems lies in a rewiring of the processes that dictate the holding and dispersals of pensions and other benefits in the first place. If effectively worked upon, that might address maybe a third to a half of the corruption (the worst kind) that citizens face.