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CORRUPTION-INDIA: Gandhian Movement Pushes Ombudsman Law

Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, Apr 7 2011 (IPS) - Seeing the bespectacled old man fasting in protest against corruption in the bustling heart of the Indian capital, many are reminded of Mahatma Gandhi, the man who used ‘moral power’ to lead India to independence from British colonial rule in 1947

The resemblance is more than a passing one. Before hunkering down under a marquee Tuesday, Anna Hazare, 73, took care to visit Gandhi’s mausoleum and pledge to sacrifice his life to achieve his immediate goal – revision of a bill that would institute an ombudsman to oversee cases of high corruption.

Hazare and other activists want the Jan Lok Pal Bill to be redrawn so that the selection of the ombudsman is made through a process that involves civil society. They want investigations into corruption not to drag on interminably, as they do now, but to be completed within one year.

They are also demanding stiffer penalties for those convicted of corruption – a minimum of five years in jail, and a life sentence as maximum. The existing draft bill only provides for a minimum sentence of six months, and a maximum of seven years in jail.

Like Gandhi, Hazare commands enormous respect. The crowds swelling around the marquee set up close to the Jantar Mantar, an eighteenth century observatory, whose lawns have been set aside for public protests, are testimony to his popularity and his cause.

Hazare is clear that he does not want the support of any political party, and his supporters have shooed away political leaders trying to approach him for photo opportunities.

“We are tired of seeing case after case of corruption being reported in the newspapers and the television channels with the politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen behind massive scams getting away scot-free,” said Ashish Arora, who took time away from work to sit on the lawns of the Jantar Mantar.

Arora believes that the creation of an independent ombudsman would go a long way toward curbing corruption and embarrassing situations for the government. “Look at how the government was forced to sack the chief vigilance commissioner (CVC) who was appointed although he faces serious charges of corruption.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was forced to admit an “error of judgment” in appointing a senior bureaucrat, P.J. Thomas, as CVC, while there were pending charges of high corruption against him in a deal to import palmolein from Malaysia.

Jayaprakash Narayan, a career bureaucrat who resigned from office to begin an anti-corruption movement from his native Hyderabad, said an independently appointed Lok Pal or ombudsman is vital in the fight against corruption.

“It is important that the Lok Pal be empowered to initiate inquiries on its own and have oversight over the government’s investigative agencies and also have its own independent prosecuting mechanism,” Narayan told IPS. “The present bill created by the government envisages the creation of a toothless Lok Pal.”

Narayan said the government’s lack of seriousness in tackling corruption was obvious from the fact that it has shied away from ratifying the United Nations Convention against Corruption, and has also avoided initiating steps to recover an estimated 1.2 trillion dollars that corrupt Indians are estimated to have stashed away in Swiss banks and other tax havens.

The reluctance of the government to institute a strong Lok Pal can also been seen in the fact that no fewer than eight attempts have been made to introduce the bill in parliament since 1968.

Prashant Bhushan, a leading human rights lawyer who has been campaigning for judicial reforms, attributes the failure to move an effective bill through parliament to the fact that it seeks to investigate politicians. Bhushan said the latest version in fact seeks to make politicians completely immune to any disciplinary action.

People Against Corruption (PAC), a rights group of which Bhushan is a member, believes that the Lok Pal must be selected by a broad-based committee rather than by a three-man committee of retired judges, as provided for in the draft bill.

PAC has also been demanding that the Lok Pal be empowered to initiate an inquiry against a legislator on its own rather than wait for cases to be referred to it by the speaker of the Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) or the chairperson of the Rajya Sabha (upper house).

Similarly, public servants can be prosecuted for corruption only under the colonial Indian Penal Code of 1860, and the investigating agency must get prior sanction of the central or state government before it can initiate the proceedings.

Bhushan said that it has been amply proven that 10 years of privatisation and liberalisation policies had resulted in a dramatic increase in corruption. “This is all the more reason why a strong Lok Pal should be instituted without delay.”

Hazare’s fast-unto-death is a protest against an attempt by the government to introduce a watered down bill, a view that is endorsed by former top police officer Kiran Bedi and Arvind Kejriwal, the man who made a dramatic success out of India’s right to information laws.

“Anna Hazare is a very determined man and a true Gandhian. He is not going to back down unless the government agrees to a transparent way of selecting the Lok Pal that involves ordinary members of society,” Bedi said.

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