As a unit of the state police, the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) is not immune from political interference in postings, transfers, duration of tenures, etc., and lacks support from an independent authority like the Lokayukta.

Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai gestures as he speaksCredit: Facebook/Basavaraj Bommai
Voices Corruption Wednesday, April 27, 2022 - 12:22

In the last few weeks, Karnataka has been reeling under allegations of rampant corruption and maladministration. The Karnataka Contractors’ Association has categorically alleged that contractors were being forced to pay bribes worth 40% percent of any project’s value. In fact, the Association had flagged this issue in November 2021, in a letter to the Prime Minister. However, the issue garnered attention after a contractor allegedly died by suicide due to a financial crisis triggered by the government’s reluctance to clear his dues.

Shortly after the Contractors’ Association’s outburst, a seer accused the government of expecting a 30% cut from the grants meant for mutts. Apart from these allegations, a massive scam in the recruitment of Police Sub Inspectors in the state has come to light, indicating the existence of a well-oiled system to subvert a fair recruitment process. These instances, along with the allegations of corruption in the recent past, ought to nudge citizens to reflect on the capabilities and performance of the state’s anti-corruption agencies.

Defanging of the Lokayukta

Until 2016, Karnataka’s premier anti-corruption agency was the Lokayukta with its own police wing to investigate cases under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988. When the Lokayukta was headed by retired Supreme Court judges like Justices Santosh Hegde and Venkatachala, it came down heavily on corrupt public servants. The credibility of the institution shot up in 2011 when the Lokayukta’s police wing trapped a sitting MLA when he was accepting a bribe in his official residence. Eventually, the Lokayukta Court sentenced the MLA to three years of rigorous imprisonment. Furthermore, the same year, Justice Hegde’s report on illegal mining in the state implicated the then Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa, who was forced to resign. Thereafter, the Lokayukta Court issued an arrest warrant against him in another corruption case probed by the Lokayukta police and he was jailed for almost a month.

In 2016, the Siddaramaiah-led government defanged the Lokayukta by withdrawing its police wing’s power to investigate cases under the Prevention of Corruption Act. Instead, this power was conferred on the newly created Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB), headed by an Additional Director General of Police. As a result, the Lokayukta’s powers have been confined to conducting departmental enquiries entrusted to it and submitting reports to the government after scrutinising complaints received from citizens.

Why the ACB is not an effective ombudsman

It is pertinent to note that the ACB is merely a unit of the state police. It functions under the administrative control of the Department of Personnel and Administrative Reforms. Every district has an ACB police station headed by a Deputy Superintendent of Police. The officers and personnel are members of the regular police force who have merely been posted to the ACB after having served in other police stations and units. Therefore, unlike the Lokayukta’s police wing, the ACB does not report to an independent ombudsman and also lacks the institutional support offered by an ombudsman like the Lokayukta.

It is unrealistic to expect a unit of the state police to function as the premier anti-corruption agency. The Police Department is plagued by political interference in postings, transfers, duration of tenures, etc., and the ACB is not immune from these maladies. An anti-corruption agency is often required to probe cases involving politicians and bureaucrats who wield considerable power, and hence, investigating officers require institutional support from an independent authority like the Lokayukta. It was this support from former Lokayuktas like Justices Hegde and Venkatachala that enabled the Lokayukta police to crack down on powerful legislators and bureaucrats.

ACB’s abysmal performance

Since 2016, the ACB has filed more than 2,000 cases but the accused were convicted only in 19 cases. While most of these cases have not been decided by the courts, the accused were acquitted in 35 cases. According to the Prevention of Corruption Act, a court cannot proceed against a public servant accused of corruption unless the government grants sanction to prosecute. In hundreds of cases, the state government is yet to grant sanctions, thereby delaying the commencement of trials. The slow investigation may also be attributed to the staff crunch in the ACB.

To make matters worse, a number of public servants who were booked by the ACB continue to discharge their duties as they have not been dismissed. The prolonged trials and departmental enquiries help them continue in service despite the corruption charges. Therefore, though the ACB’s raids on corrupt public servants and recovery of tactfully hidden tainted cash make it to the headlines, the accused may have the last laugh.

The corruption cases are often tried by the regular Sessions Courts (though designated as special courts) that are burdened with cases of murder, rape, dacoity, etc. Prolonged trials adversely affect the quality of the witnesses’ depositions and may result in contradictions and omissions that eventually help the accused.

Much needed reforms

Unless the ACB is brought under the supervision of an independent authority like the Lokayukta, it will continue to fumble in the fight against corruption. If the government is serious about tackling corruption, it should ensure that the ACB consists of officers who are specially trained to investigate intricate cases involving disproportionate assets, etc. It is equally important to streamline the process of granting sanctions to prosecute public servants accused of corruption, and prevent prolonged trials.

In its present form, the ACB’s sting is felt only by the occasional low-ranking official whose lack of ingenuity results in him getting trapped while directly accepting chemically treated currency notes from the complainant.

Rahul Machaiah is a lawyer from Karnataka. He holds an LLM in Law & Development from Azim Premji University.

Views expressed are the author's own.

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