Rethink sweeping powers for anti-corruption body
Given the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) came to power largely on an anti-corruption plank, it is natural that it should be in a hurry to pass its Jan Lokpal Bill. But those in the Congress and the BJP who are going along so as not to be caught on the wrong side of the anti-corruption debate also need to do a rethink of the key provisions of the Bill—instead, both parties are more concerned about ensuring the Bill is passed in the Delhi Assembly and not at a public function which the AAP is in favour of. There is the obvious problem of whom the Delhi police report to that needs to be dealt with first. While the UPA’s face-off with the Delhi chief minister on the reporting structure of the Delhi police hasn’t yet been resolved, the Lokpal brings those working in “public authority” under it, and public authority includes the DDA and the Delhi police.
More serious are the sweeping powers given to the Lokpal, combining as it does investigative, prosecutorial and judicial functions in one body. It doesn’t help that PSUs, airports and highways built under public private partnership (PPP) models and even NGOs receiving some manner of funding through the budget will be considered to be ‘public authorities’. In the case of the PSUs, this means yet another layer of monitors to deal with and, in the case of PPPs that have been set up precisely to get away from the tyranny of operating like a PSU, this makes them quasi-PSUs.
The Bill also seeks to empower the Lokpal to “recommend cancellation or modification of a lease, licence, permission, contract or agreement, if it was obtained by corrupt means and to recommend blacklisting of a firm, company, contractor or any other person, involved in an act of corruption”. Once this recommendation is made, the Bill goes on to say, the ‘public authority’ shall either comply/reject this within a month, or the recommendation will deem to have been accepted. Given there are regular courts of law, and appeal for even the smallest of crime, surely this is a step that will cause all manner of problems? Take the case of the Delhi electricity companies where, for instance, the state government already seems to have concluded the two BSES firms are guilty of poor governance—it has not openly used the word corruption as yet. It is not inconceivable a Lokpal could recommend cancelling of their licenses, even though this is actually the subject of the Delhi electricity regulator, and then appeal at the Appellate Tribunal for Electricity and the Supreme Court. Given how anything happening in one state, tends to spread to others—the APP’s electricity subsidies are the most evocative example of this—a Bill like this will make it even more difficult for business to operate across the country. That has to be a sobering thought for a party that is in power, or one that hopes to come to power, at both the Centre and in various states.