Photo: JS42

In Parliament

The budget session of Parliament got off to a good start as the government agreed to constitute a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) to examine the auction of 2G telecom spectrum.  However, release of some documents by Wikileaks lead to further disruptions, as the opposition alleged that the first UPA government had paid bribes to MPs for their support in the July 2008 trust vote. There have also been allegations of corruption on a number of other issues, such as the Commonwealth Games, the ISRO-Devas deal and  the Adarsh building society, which have rocked Parliament in recent sessions.

There have been a number of proposals with the intent to take steps to curb corruption. These include government statements, legislative bills, and recommendations of high level committees. These measures relate to the corruption in the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. In this note, we discuss some of these proposed measures.

The President’s address to Parliament this year said that “a group of ministers is considering all measures, including legislative and administrative, to tackle corruption and improve transparency”. The speech listed some of the measures under consideration: formulation of a public procurement policy, abolition of discretionary powers enjoyed by ministers, open and competitive systems for exploiting natural resources, fast track of corruption cases, and the feasibility of state funding of elections.

The first UPA government had introduced a bill in 2008 to amend the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988. This bill proposed to permit the central and state governments to appoint a special judge to try specified offences. A police officer investigating corruption cases against a public servant may apply to the judge for attaching any property that is believed to be acquired in contravention of the law. This bill lapsed in 2009, and has not been re-introduced.

In her very first address to Parliament after the 2009 general elections, the President had promised to introduce a public services bill. The purpose of such a bill is to reduce the politicisation of all-India services such as the Indian Administrative Service and the Indian Police Service. Officers would have a fixed tenure at each posting; such a move would protect honest officers from being transferred at frequent intervals. The bill was also to have clear and enforceable codes of conduct and ethics. The government has not introduced the Bill.

In this context, it is pertinent to note some of the recommendations of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC). They recommended that the requirement of prior sanction from the government to prosecute a public servant be removed in cases where he is caught red-handed or has assets disproportionate to known sources of income. The Union government should delegate the power to sanction prosecution to an empowered committee comprising the Central Vigilance Commissioner and the respective departmental secretary. They also recommended that court proceedings should be held on a day-to-day basis, and adjournments should not be permitted.

Another important observation of the ARC pertains to the Benami Transactions (Prohibition) Act, 1988. The Act prohibits benami transactions, that is, it prevents any person from acquiring a property in the name of another person.  The Act also provides for confiscation of benami property by the government.  However, the ARC points out that even after 18 years, the Rules to implement the Act were not framed. This implies that the government cannot confiscate wealth obtained by any corrupt public servant and kept in benami accounts.

The Right to Information (RTI) Act has served as a useful tool against corruption, as increased transparency brings out acts of wrongdoing. Another important bill in this context is the Public Interest Disclosure Bill (also called the Whistleblower Bill). The Bill intends to designate the central and state vigilance commissions as the authorities to receive complaints against public officials and investigate them. However, the Bill does not permit anonymous complaints; it requires that the complainant’s identity be kept confidential, but permits disclosure of the name to the head of the department beings complained against, “if it is necessary” to do so.  This Bill is currently being examined by the Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievance, Law and Justice.

What about judges? There have been several allegations of corruption against the judiciary too. Following a motion in the Rajya Sabha to impeach Justice Soumitra Sen of the Calcutta High Court, an inquiry committee has found that there is sufficient evidence to prove the charges against him. Another inquiry committee has framed charges against Chief Justice Paul Daniel Dinakaran of the Sikkim High Court.  An important bill in this context is the Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill. This Bill has three broad objectives. It requires all judges of High Courts and the Supreme Court to declare their assets, and this information will be placed in public domain. Second, it provides statutory backing to the code of conduct for judges. Third, it provides a process for the public to make a complaint against a judge, in addition to the Parliamentary procedure. This Bill is also being examined by the Standing Committee on Law.

What about Members of Parliament? In the P V Narasimha Rao case, where some MPs were found to have taken money to vote for the government in a trust vote, the Supreme Court ruled that their conduct was protected by Parliamentary privilege. That is, actions taken in Parliament or in relation to a vote or a speech cannot be questioned in courts. In some cases, Parliament has expelled MPs caught in bribery cases, such as those taking cash for asking questions. However, the privileges of Parliament have never been codified. This means that there is no clear guideline on what constitutes breach of privilege, and under what conditions an MP would be considered to have committed such a breach.

What about Ministers? The idea of having a public authority to oversee corruption charges against ministers is encapsulated in the long proposed Lok Pal Bill. This Bill first made its appearance in 1968. The idea gets frequently dusted off, and debated in newspapers whenever there are allegations against ministers. However, there has not been any sign of the Bill being introduced in Parliament in recent times.

We have illustrated several lacunae in the laws and procedures that intend to stem corruption. These lacunae as well as the steps needed to plug them are well known and discussed by many committees. However, there has been little action to implement the necessary changes to the laws and procedures. It is important the Parliament as well as its committees (including the JPC and the Public Accounts Committee) take the necessary steps. Only then, will we see any decline in corrupt acts by public officials.