If we go by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s televised announcement on November 8, the reason to implement demonetisation on such a massive scale was to fight corruption. The narrative has changed somewhat lately and the need to modernise the Indian economy and move towards a cashless society have been presented as additional factors. But the need to counter corruption clearly remains a priority.
Modi’s electoral success in 2014 took place in the wake of a formidable anti-corruption mobilisation initiated in 2011 by Anna Hazare. At that time, thousands of people demanded the creation of a Lokpal. This was one of the most popular movements in post-independence India — it called to mind the movement Jayaprakash Narayan had spearheaded in the 1970s. As Gujarat CM, Modi supported the creation of Lokpal in an open letter to Hazare on April 11, 2011. The Lokpal Bill was passed in Parliament in December 2013 as the Lokpal and Lokayukta Act. A little less than six months later, a new government was in charge. But three years later, there is still no Lokpal.
The government has argued that the search committee has not been formed because there has been no leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha. Last month, the Supreme Court did not appreciate this reasoning while examining a PIL filed by the NGO Common Cause. The bench headed by Chief Justice T.S. Thakur asked Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi: “When you say the government is committed to cleansing corruption, then this (Lokpal) is the step in the right direction. Why should there be a feeling that the government is dragging the feet? For the last two and a half years, there is no leader of Opposition. This position is likely to continue for next two and a half years. Will you allow the law to become redundant, just because there is no leader of Opposition?” The Court heard the matter on December 7 again, and asked Rohatgi to place before it the Parliamentary Standing Committee report recommending that the law to appoint the Lokpal should be amended. The Court is supposed to hear the matter again on December 14 but voting for any amendment to the law in Parliament will probably take time.
Another Lokpal is also likely to take time and may even become a dead letter — the Delhi Jan Lokpal, which Prashant Bhushan and Shanti Bhushan (who had introduced the first Lokpal Bill in 1968) called a “jokepal” because of the dilution of the project they had conceived with Arvind Kejriwal during the Anna Hazare-led movement. This bill was passed by the Delhi assembly in December 2015, but it was returned by the Centre — along with 13 other bills in June.
In the absence of Lokpals, RTI activists remain particularly important among those exposing corruption cases the most effectively. The Right To Information Act, that was passed in 2005, is, despite all its loopholes, one of the major contributions of the UPA government to, as the Act itself says, “promoting transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority”. However, the implementation of the Act has been dogged by two difficulties, which the government can address. First, according to Venkatesh Nayak, the co-convenor of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) and coordinator of Access to Justice Programme at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, about 1.8 lakh appeals and complaints were pending before the 29 information commissions across the country in 2014-15. This is either due to lack of response from the public officers to demands for information or unreasonable delays in providing information. This problem can be partially solved by reducing the number of vacancies, which represent 24 per cent of the 149 posts of information commissioners across the country.
Secondly, RTI activists are under immense pressure. In 2011, the Central Information Commission had passed a resolution saying that “if it receive(d) a complaint regarding assault or murder of an information seeker, it will examine the pending RTI applications of the victim and order the concerned department(s) to publish the requested information suo moto on their website as per the provisions of law”. This resolution has not been systematically implemented and the situation has deteriorated even more. According to NCPRI data, till date, 146 RTI activists have been harassed (death threats being the most common form of harassment), 118 have been assaulted (many of them were severely wounded) and more than 50 have died (including four cases of suicide and half a dozen killings possibly unrelated to the cause they were defending). RTI activists are under so much pressure because they deal with serious forms of corruption, including land transactions. To protect them, the Whistleblower Protection Act (WBP Act) was passed in 2014 by the UPA government. It turns out, however, that it needs to be upgraded in several respects. The NCPRI has suggested 14 significant avenues for improvement, including the inclusion of a definition of “victimisation” in the Act and the addition of a clause permitting a whistleblower to publicise allegations of wrongdoing through the media.
The Asia Centre for Human Rights has also made three recommendations — mandatory and immediate registration of FIR on complaints about the use of force or attacks against RTI activists; inquiry by a police officer not below the rank of deputy superintendent of police within three months; trial of the accused within six months if the offence is established by investigation. These changes aiming to protect the lives of the whistleblowers have not been introduced. But amendments were introduced in Parliament in May 2015 to dilute the WBP Act. One of them implied that the Official Secrets Act, 1923 applied to whistleblowers; this means they can be prosecuted for possessing government documents on which their complained were based. The amendments also excluded from the ambit of inquiry any matter of “public interest” affecting the “sovereignty and integrity of India” or matters related to “commercial confidence”.
In August 2015, Modi used an Independence Day speech to make his point: “Corruption had eaten away our country like termites. So if I have stopped so much corruption, there will, of course, be many who will curse me. Only those who looted the nation are not enthused by this government”. While he was using a past tense in his first sentence, Modi’s demonetisation drive shows that corruption remains a problem. The magnitude of the challenge would indeed justify the creation of a proper Lokpal and the protection of the whistleblowers.