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'Gagging the voices against corruption'

Jan 28, 2010

Anti-corruption machineries have been used either to scuttle complaints against the mighty or to victimise those who do not fall in line, writes Arvind Kejriwal, a social activist in India. Media pressure has helped in getting justice, but there is a need for an independent and effective body, he argues.

Satish Shetty's murder raises some critical issues. Before everyone forgets him, can we learn some lessons and put such systems in place so that such murders do not take place in future?

Before Shetty, Satyendra Dubey, Manjunath and many others died fighting corruption. It raises two issues – timely and effective investigation into allegations of corruption and security of those who raise their voices.

Do we have an effective and credible anti-corruption machinery? The answer is emphatic "No". When an ordinary citizen exposes corruption, either through RTI or otherwise, where should he complain? There are a plethora of anti-corruption agencies – police, vigilance departments, CVC, Lokayuktas, CBI – not one of them is effective and independent of the executive, against whom they are supposed to function.

Let us start with Central Vigilance Commission, which is the apex body in our country to deal with corruption. With a staff less than 200 people, it is supposed to check corruption in more than 1500 central government departments, many of them being as big as income tax department, railways, excise, etc.

It receives more than 15,000 complaints of corruption every year but investigates less than a few hundred. Its machinery is woefully inadequate to investigate all complaints that it receives. Therefore, more than half of the complaints received are forwarded to internal vigilance wings of various departments.

Rest of the complaints are merely filed. Even in those cases where it investigates, it does not have powers to prosecute or take disciplinary action against officials found guilty. It merely recommends to respective department to take action.

What happens to the complaints forwarded by CVC to internal vigilance wings of various departments? Each department has such a wing. In many cases, it is manned by field officials from the same department who double up as vigilance officials.

So, if someone makes a complaint against a wrongdoing by any such official, that official investigates against himself. One railway employee was being forced by his boss to pass some wrong bills.

The official complained to the Railways chairman and CVC. Both of them forwarded the complaints to his boss, who also happened to be the vigilance official for that area, to investigate against himself and report back. One can imagine what the boss would have done to that official.

In many departments, even if there are separate officials for vigilance jobs, they are mostly drawn up from the same department.

Though some big departments do have an outsider as the vigilance head, however, the entire vigilance machinery under him is drawn up from the same department. So, if a vigilance official receives a complaint against a senior officer, he would never have the courage to proceed against him.

Therefore, as soon as a complaint is received, the vigilance officer assures that senior officer of protection in expectation of some quid pro quo in future.

Then there is CBI, which is directly controlled by the central government and has been used shamelessly by all governments to scuttle enquiries against political loyalists and settle scores against opponents.

That's all in the name of anti-corruption at Central level. State governments also have similar anti-corruption machineries. State vigilance bureau and police are directly under the control of state executive and cannot proceed against anyone without express or tacit approval from political or bureaucratic bosses, who are themselves, directly or indirectly, involved in most corruption cases.

Can this anti-corruption machinery deliver? It is only meant to either scuttle complaints against high and mighty or is used to victimise those who do not fall in line.

With the advent of RTI, the number of people, who are exposing corruption and then seeking punishment for the guilty, has increased exponentially. They get frustrated when their complaints are not acted upon. If they persist, they are eliminated.

Therefore, we do not need plethora of investigating bodies. We need just one agency, completely independent of the executive and has powers and resources to investigate and prosecute. It should also have the powers to take disciplinary action against guilty officials.

The agency should itself be completely transparent in its functioning and should complete investigations within a prescribed time limit. The chief of this agency should be appointed through a participatory process.

Special courts should be set up to decide cases filed by this agency within a prescribed time. Lokayuktas in states can play this role, if we make necessary amendments to Lokayukta Act on the above lines. At Centre, we desperately need a Lokpal to fill this gap. A very weak version of Lokpal Bill is pending in Parliament since 1967!

Then, if any whistle blower is victimised or threatened, he could approach Lokayukta or Lokpal for protection, who should decide upon it and direct the police to provide protection within 24 hours.

Hong Kong, faced with similar levels of corruption in 1970's, set up an Independent Commission Against Corruption. The Commission was given complete powers to investigate and prosecute.

Officers were handpicked. Out of roughly 110 police officers at middle level, the commission found almost 105 guilty and sacked them. We need that kind of action.

Media will have to play a critical role. It was due to media pressure that Jessica and Ruchika got justice in the past. Let media demand such systemic changes this time that every Jessica and Ruchika gets justice next time.

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