Unless Tamil Nadu corrects the systemic impunity offered by the state to its top "public servants", it would not be able to fight corruption.

IT-raids on TN Chief Secy The corruption paradox and why we desperately need a Lok Ayuktha
news Opinion Friday, December 23, 2016 - 09:32

If there is a state crying out for a Lok Ayuktha (the anti-corruption ombudsman mandated by Lokpal Act of 2014), it is Tamil Nadu. At present, the state's Chief Secretary (who has since been replaced) is the target of Income Tax Dept raids, while the late Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa herself served jail time briefly for possessing disproportionate assets.

The Lokpal and Lok Ayuktha authorities were designed to solve, among other issues, a basic paradox in Indian bureaucratic structure. The paradox is best explained with the current raids on P Rama Mohana Rao, the former Chief Secretary, and hence the apex bureaucrat in Tamil Nadu.

The state's primary anti-corruption authority is the Department of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption (DVAC). DVAC requires the permission of the Tamil Nadu Vigilance Commissioner, among others, to investigate the Chief Secretary. The present Vigilance Commissioner of Tamil Nadu is the very same Rama Mohana Rao.

If someone had proffered a DVAC complaint on Rao, accusing him of disproportionate assets, he sits in a very happy position of authorizing an investigation on himself.

One issue is the practice, in Tamil Nadu, of letting the Chief Secretary hold the additional charge of Vigilance Commissioner. The Ram Mohana Rao raids have brought the effects of such careless and irresponsible allocation of portfolios to the fore. The Vigilance Commissioner needs to be an independent charge, at a minimum.

However, the bigger paradox remains - how can the state fight corruption when its top officials and people's representatives are themselves corrupt?

This paradox was at the center of the anti-corruption movement guided by Anna Hazare, which offered the Jan Lokpal as a solution. Subsequently, Parliament passed the Lokpal Act 2014.The Lokpal (at center) and Lok Ayukthas (in the states) would create an independent anti-corruption ombudsman. This ombudsman would not report into the state's bureaucracy.

At present, Tamil Nadu's AIADMK government has not made any move to create the Lok Ayuktha. The Lok Ayuktha should have been created within a year of the passing of Central Lokpal Act, 2014. When challenged in court, the government's response has been that it is waiting for amendments to the Central Lokpal Act, which may affect the state. However, the Center has recently clarified it is not looking to amend the state-specific sections of the Act.

Yet, the state dithers, while its former top elected official and top bureaucrat have been accused of corruption.

Admittedly, designing a Lok Ayuktha bill is tricky business. The Lok Ayuktha would separate investigating authority and resources for such investigations from under the government and move it to an independent authority. 

Technically speaking, a substantial part of the Act is dedicated to the crucial appointment of the top official of the structure, also known as the Lok Ayuktha. The Act needs to do so carefully, so that the Lok Ayuktha is not "appointed" by one political grouping.

The second challenge the Act faces is to make sure the Lok Ayuktha can take action against any "public servant". At issue is the definition of a public servant - whether it includes, for example, the Chief Minister, Cabinet Ministers, MLAs and Grade A bureaucrats. 

The third challenge is to make sure that the authority remains independent, without reporting into the state's normal bureaucratic structure.

From the above, we can immediately see that the present Tamil Nadu DVAC satisfies none of these conditions. The DVAC does report into the state's top bureaucrats. Its head is indeed the Chief Minster's choice. The DVAC does need government permission to investigate top public servants.

A couple of Model Lok Ayuktha bills have been drafted by civil society groups in Tamil Nadu. Arappor Iyakkam (the organization I work with) has submitted a Model Bill to the Tamil Nadu government, back in March, 2016. These bills address the above challenges and incorporate best practice approaches, to create a much-required anti-corruption ombudsman. In the recent assembly elections, several major parties, including the DMK, had promised Lok Ayuktha in their manifesto.

However, the ruling ADMK has no made no move in this direction, as skeletons keep coming out of its closet.

Unless Tamil Nadu corrects the systemic impunity offered by the state to its top "public servants", it would not be able to fight corruption. Right now, this seems to be the government's last priority.

 

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