Sharp claws, but no teeth

Sure enough, the Lokayukta is doing a good job in rounding up corrupt and inefficient officials and we congratulate them for that. However, we at Citizen Matters always wondered what made the Lokayukta tick, what happened to the people who were booked, and whether the Karnataka Lokayukta Act was powerful enough to make the Lokayukta an extremely effective anti-corruption organisation. Well, we decided to interview with Justice Santosh Hegde, the present Lokayukta and then draw our own conclusions from what emerged.

67-year-old Justice Hedge took office in August 2006 for a five-year term. He was born in Karkala taluk, now in Udupi district and did his schooling in Mangalore and subsequently college education in Bangalore. He holds a law degree from the University Law College, Bangalore. He has been a Solicitor General of India, the Chairperson, of the Telecom Disputes Settlement Appellate Tribunal, and a judge at the Supreme Court of India.

Sunil Tinani caught up with Justice Hegde last week, and here is what we got:

How does the Lokayukta get its information? How much is it from the grapevine, and if so, do you act on verbal complaints?

The Lokayukta’s office in Bangalore like an open house for the people of Karnataka. We have people coming in unannounced, and we entertain everybody and get all sorts of cases – from small ticket items right down to cases involving big names. Even small complaints concerning private institutes are registered with us – and what we do in such cases, if we find them worthy, is haul up the government officials overseeing these institutes/companies and try to fix the matter there and then.

We do get information from the grapevine, but as the Lokayukta has not been given suo moto powers, we cannot act on these. However, the Upa Lokayuktas (assistant Lokayuktas) do their bit by investigating some of these cases and if they find enough dirt, then they act.

Can you ever pre-empt a corruption case? For example, there are cases of corruption happening all over the city, which even the common man can spot without any effort (building flyovers, fixing potholes, unknown and inexperienced contractors working on civic problems, etc.). You must be coming across such cases daily, can’t you do something about them? Or, does the law require you to act only on information?

No, we cannot act on these cases, and that is because we don’t have suo moto powers. We did ask for these powers but they were not given and when former Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy was leaving, he did give us partial powers to proceed against bureaucrats, but the Governor has kept these powers in cold storage – he wants the new Government to formally give these powers to us.

Is there a reward given to informants, and if so, how much?

We do not offer any rewards or incentives.

Do you think that the Lokayukta will get more information if it offered rewards?

Yes, that is certain.

Karnataka Lokayukta
124, I Floor MS Building
Ambedkar Veedhi
Bangalore – 560 001.
Tel: 22257638

Justice Santosh Hedge
Brief bio

 

 

Do you offer protection to people who give you information?

No, there is no witness protection program as such, and having one on the lines of the American Witness Protection Program will not serve any purpose because it will involve relocation, creating new identities, etc. – and even the witnesses are not ready for that.

Do you think you will get better information from fearless informants if you offered a witness protection program, in any style?

Yes.

Once the corrupt are booked, does the Lokayukta follow up on sentences and strictures passed? If not, who does?

After the Lokayukta nabs the corrupt, they are tried under the Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA), and then there is a departmental enquiry, whose officers follow up on the cases – the Lok Ayukta cannot proceed under the PCA. Statistics with us show that 25 per cent of those who are caught by us are indicted and sentenced, with the maximum prison sentence awarded being 7 years. Of the cases that we are sure are corrupt, 75 per cent manage to drag the cases on – witnesses turn hostile, they complain about technicalities, etc. – and go scot-free. The government has to develop a non-nonsense-all-business attitude if they want to bring corruption to its knees – also, there must be no mercy shown once a corrupt official is booked.

Is the Lokayukta only about nabbing the corrupt?

No, the Lokayukta does the following: (i) It tries to ensure there is good governance. (ii) It tries to ensure there are no leakages in the system. (iii) Along with these, it also nabs the corrupt.

Do you face a lot of hindrance from a lot of departments while investigating?

No, our investigation goes smoothly and cuts across any government department without any hindrance. But we do face flak from some citizen organizations when the media rightly publishes the names of the guilty – these citizen organizations then accuse the Lokayukta of being publicity-hungry.

When guilt is established under the PCA, what happens?

The guilty lose their jobs and all their benefits. If it is proved that they have purchased assets out of their ill-gotten gains, then these assets are seized. However, as I said earlier, this is true in 25 per cent of the cases. In 75 per cent of the cases, the corrupt are charge-sheeted and suspended from their jobs. While in suspension, they keep receiving their suspension allowance (50 per cent of pay) and then after 6 months they are reinstated, unless the PCA pronounces them guilty.

Don’t you feel frustrated to watch a corrupt official walk away free?

Yes. And for that to stop, the government must enforce the recommendations of the Lok Ayukta. Sadly, this is not being followed. We had recommended to former chief minister H D Kumaraswamy to remove two ministers – Alkod Hanumantapa and Sharna Basappa Darshanapurkar – but our recommendation was not followed.

This may sound harsh, but should India follow the China model of dealing with corruption, which is to execute the corrupt?

No, figures show that even though China is ruthless in dealing with corruption, the degree of corruption out there is higher than India. Out here, a prison sentence coupled with a loss of job and social boycott will prove to be the biggest deterrents.

Are you optimistic that things will change in the future – can the citizens ever hope to see an extremely powerful Lokayukta?

The Karnataka Lokayukta Act is the best Lokayukta Act in the country. Despite that, we feel that we must be given suo moto powers and the government must act immediately on our recommendations. Having said that, I am not very optimistic as there is a lack of political will across all parties.

Analysis

Going by the views of Justice Hegde, it is clear that the Karnataka Government has created a hardworking and efficient tiger with sharp claws but no teeth. The result is that though it can effectively catch the corrupt, it cannot chew on them. To make the tiger, i.e., the Lok Ayukta, more effective, the Karnataka Lok Ayukta Act needs to change. Here is a list of important changes needed immediately:

  1. The Lokayukta has to be given suo moto powers. Once it has these powers, it can act on the basis of newspaper reports, RTI findings and more. The result will be that the corrupt will have everywhere to run but no place to hide, and then the common man can at least hope to see far higher percentage of the corrupt convicted than the current 25 per cent.
  2. When the Lokayukta’s makes recommendations, they must be acted upon by the government. If the government sits on them, then one of the main objectives of forming the Lokayukta itself is lost.
  3. A rewards scheme has to be instituted and informants must get financial compensation for their assistance. This will encourage qualitative and precise information.
  4. A protection program must be devised for informants and whiste-blowers. Else, there should be a system that ensures that their identity is never revealed.
  5. The Lokayukta must be given a separate staff to follow up cases that are running against the corrupt. If need be, the Lokayukta must be given authority to appeal against lenient verdicts based on mercy or on technical grounds.
  6. The Lokayukta must be given powers to independently investigate the criminal-politician-police nexus and bust it wide open.
  7. An amnesty-cum-confession window must be opened all the time to allow the corrupt official and politicians to voluntarily own up to their crimes. This will yield results only if the Lokayukta is given suo moto powers.

With state elections around the corner, an elected government will be back in Vidhan Saudha not before long. It will then be time for the new government to act. Both the Lok Ayukta and RTI (Right to Information) Act, along with some help from citizens, have the potential to conjure a deadly cocktail for corrupt officials and politicians.

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