Voices Friday, July 24, 2015 - 05:30
  The Siddaramaiah government is proposing amendments to the Karnataka Lokayukta Act to deal with what has increasingly become an untenable situation – the refusal of Karnataka Lokayukta Y Bhaskar Rao to step down as more dirt is unearthed in the Lokayukta scam. By refusing to step down, in spite of his son being at the centre of a large bribing scam, Rao is indeed doing a great disservice to the institution of the Lokayukta. Political observers and legal experts are apprehensive that the government is using Rao's reluctance to quit as a pretext to dilute the institution of the Lokayukta itself, which has rightly been regarded as the last line of redress for those who have been aggrieved by the state machinery. Karnataka’s Lokayukta has widely been considered to be one of the best in the country. But the state government says it wants to amend the law so that the institution cannot be misused in such a manner in future, and to effect changes in the law that would simplify procedures to remove a Lokayukta if a similar situation arises in future. While this is a welcome move, the other amendments proposed are cause for serious alarm – the removal of the Lokayukta’s mandate to deal with maladministration. If this mandate is taken away, the Lokayukta will no longer be what it is, legal experts say. When it was enforced in 1986, the institution of the Lokayukta had been tasked with two primary objectives – dealing with executive and bureaucratic corruption, but also equally, maladministration. Narayana A, at the Law, Governance and Development Initiative at the Azim Premji University in Bengaluru says that this latter mandate of the Lokayukta institution is often lost in the “misnomer” of “anti-corruption watchdog”. He explains that the institution of the Lokayukta has a broadly two-tiered structure – the institution of the Lokayukta (aided by the Upalokayuktas) and the Lokayukta Police. The bulk of the former’s role is to deal with complaints of maladministration while the latter engages the duties of checking corruption. The Lokayukta Police are empowered to what is informally calling trapping (in cases of a bribe) and raiding (where disproportionate wealth is suspected). While the two wings are linked, the former has little to do with the latter. The government’s stated reasons for divesting the duties of curbing maladministration are that it does not think it necessary that the Lokayukta should be burdened by these duties after the enactment of the Karnataka Guarantee of Services to Citizens (Sakala) Act and in the existence of the Right to Information Act. However, Narayana points out that the government’s logic was flawed. When the bureaucracy fails to deliver services within the stipulated time-frame, the most that the Sakala law can do, is to seek an explanation from the official concerned and when that is inadequate, the law can impose a minimal fine. But “an entire hierarchy of officers” can fail to discharge their duties if they are in collusion, which is where the Lokayukta is important. “If say, you complain to the Deputy Commissioner against the Tahsildar for something, the DC might take action if she/he is not in collusion. But what if the DC is in collusion with the Tahsildar?” Narayana asks. In such a scenario, the Lokayukta has the power to recommend disciplinary action to the superiors of the concerned official, and could result in a demotion, scaling down of salary and other severe penal measures. Besides delays in the delivery of service, or deliberate dereliction of duty, the Lokayukta also has the power to investigate technical cases – such as complaints of poor quality construction. If a prima facie criminal case is made out, it can even order the Lokayukta Police wing to investigate, which could also lead to an FIR under the Prevention of Corruption Act. “If the Lokayukta is (really) relevant to the people of Karnataka, it is (in this capacity),” Narayana says. Another problematic proposed amendment is the requirement of the permission of the Assembly to prosecute the chief minister. At present, the Lokayukta does not need permission to investigate allegations made against the chief minister. For now, the state government has been forced to defer introducing the amendment bill in the legislature on Thurday on account of opposition from political parties and civil society as well. But it is not giving up without a fight. A special two-day session has been scheduled to introduce the bill and hold a discussion next Wednesday.
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