Voices Wednesday, July 01, 2015 - 05:30
  Over the past few days, the state of Karnataka witnessed a brutal public murder. With every front-page story detailing the sequence of events, people’s hope in institutions dropped further. It was the murder of the dream to have a corruption-free government. The hope, that we can have an institution which could reign in those who are corrupt, those who misuse state’s resources for personal benefits and blackmail officers into corruption, is now dead. The longing for an effective and honest Lokpal or Lokayukta is in tatters. The Karnataka Lokayukta, an institution which was set up to fight corruption in government is entangled in the exact situation it was expected to prevent. The Lokayukata’s son, Ashwin Rao, stands accused of misusing his father’s authority to blackmail officers to pay up, casting a cloud of suspicion over the Lokayukta Justice Y Bhaskar Rao himself. The Upalokayukta Subash B Adi is up in arms against his boss and has ordered an enquiry to be headed by SP Sonia Narang. The state government has stepped had constituted a Special Investigation Team. The Karnataka High Court on Wednesday stayed the inquiry being conducted by Narang, on a petition by Ashwin Rao. Karnataka was one of the first states in the county to establish a Lokayukta under the Karnataka Lokayukta Act of 1984, and over the years had earned the reputation of being the strongest in the country. But in the last two months, the murky details emerging in the media seem to have shaken people’s faith in the anti-corruption body. How the controversy unfolded In May this year, government executive engineer Krishnamurthy was informed by one Krishna Rao who posed as a Lokayukta official that the Joint Commissioner of Lokayukta wanted to see him on May 5. In the meeting, he was allegedly told that there were severe irregularities in his work and if he was to remain trouble-free from the Lokayukta, he had to cough up Rs 1 crore. A distraught Krishnamurthy made an oral complaint to Lokayukta (City) SP Sonia Narang on May 7. Following this, Narang filed a report bringing the issue to the notice of Lokayukta Rao and sought a probe. Justice Rao sat on the report for a month, and directed Inspector General of Police (IGP) Pranab Mohanty to probe the issue on June 9. On June 23, an NGO – Janaadhikara Sangharsh Parishath - filed a complaint with Upalokayukta Subhash B Adi urging him to investigate the corruption allegations within the institution. Subsequently, Justice Adi directed Narang to conduct an impartial probe and submit a report by July 6. On June 26, Justice Rao, along with Upalokayukta Justice SB Majage, directed the state police department’s Central Crime Branch (CCB) Joint Commissioner M Chandrashekaran to investigate the matter. The next day, Justice Adi complained that the inquiry was ordered without taking him into consideration. In yet another twist, IPS officer Chandrashekharan expressed his unwillingness to investigate the matter, stating that the Lokayukta was probing a case against his father-in-law and that it would be a conflict of interest if he investigated this case. The Lokayukta has since requested the state government to appoint an independent agency to probe the allegations even as CM Siddaramaiah ruled out a CBI enquiry on June 28. On Monday, a Kannada news channel reported that four people including Joint Commissioner Syed Riyaz of Lokayukta were involved in the bribery racket. It also claimed that the Lokayukta has 23 similar complaints about a gang, posing as Lokayukta officials, allegedly extorting money from retired or soon-to-retire officials and threatening to raid their houses if their palms were not greased. The sudden revelations came as a jolt to many as Lokayukta in the state was held in high esteem between 2001 and 2011 when Justice N Venkatachala and Justice N Santosh Hegde headed the institution. The robust functioning of the Lokayukta under Justice Venkatachala had the government thinking about reappointing him for a second term. His successor Hegde was successful in putting an end to the nefarious illegal mining activity and sending mining baron G Janardhan Reddy behind bars. His zero-toleration of corruption saw him submit a report even against then chief minister BS Yeddyurappa in the illegal land denotification scam, which forced him to relinquish his post. With Karnataka Lokayukta having such a glorious past, today’s situation has given rise to questions about the very integrity of the autonomous institution. After all, how good is an institution if it has to depend only on the integrity of the person at its helm? Hyper Super Lokpal and an endless road In 2011, India was witness to the massive ‘India Against Corruption’ movement spearheaded by Anna Hazare and others. Their main demand was to create independent institutions, the Lokpal at the centre, and a Lokayukta in each state, to tackle corruption. The movement got immense support from the masses and was in line with popular sentiments. But at the same time a section of the civil society argued against a populist move and asked, if the Lokpal or Lokayukta also turned corrupt, who would take action against the official? How would monitor them?  Nitin Pai, the founder of Takshashila Institution, had then argued that establishing Lokayukta is not just unnecessary, but would in fact make the problem worse. He had said that adding more layers to “an already complex system will make the system even more complicated” would provide “incentives” for corruption. He had further argued that it was not humanly possible to hire thousands of “absolutely honest officials” to constitute Lokpal. “Who will keep watch on them?” he had asked, “Maybe we need a Super Lok Pal, and then a Hyper Lok Pal to watch over the Super Lok Pal and so on…This isn’t sarcasm, this is the logical extension of the Lok Pal argument.”  The current situation in the state takes us back to the unanswered questions of 2011. Who will act against the anti-corruption bureau of Lokayukta, if there are graft allegations against it? Does this mean that the institution Lokpal or Lokayukta are merely smokescreens in a system which simply cannot get rid of its deep-rooted corruption? Justice Santosh Hegde disagrees. He says that an institution as a whole cannot fall victim to corruption but an individual can. “Present controversy is because one of one person’s greed. Lokayukta in Karnataka is 30 years old and had five other Lokpals, but there was no complaint. But one person has brought the institution to disgrace,” he says. The allegations against the body have jolted the faith imposed by the people, he admits. “Damage has been done, but it does not defeat the purpose of establishing Lokayukta or Lokpal,” says the former Lokayukta.  After Justice Hegde stepped down from his position in 2011, he was replaced by Justice Shivraj Patil as the new ombudsman. However, he was forced to resign within a month after assuming charge, following allegations that he had been allotted a plot in a housing society for judicial employees illegally.  After that, the position of the Lokayukta was kept vacant for several months until the then Governor H R Bhardwaj appointed the incumbent Justice Bhaskar Rao to the post. But even as Rao took oath, he was accused of the same illegality that Patil was. Despite protests, the state government and governor went ahead with the appointment, hushing up the issue.  “Although there is no provision in the (Karnataka Lokayukta) Act to investigate allegations against the Lokayukta, he can be removed through impeachment procedure and then tried under provision of the criminal laws if charges are proved,” says Justice Hegde. That begs the question - what if those who are to impeach a 'corrupt' Lokayukta too are compromised? And what if next Lokayukta is corrupt too?  In his article in The Hindu, TM Veeraraghav sums the situation with pithy. “Reality is that India has often excelled at turning critical institutions into romantic illusions with nothing but a glorious history, why should the office of one of the oldest Lokayuktas in the country be any different?” he asks. The premise of the rhetorical question could not be any closer to the truth.  
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