Parliament last month passed crucial amendments to the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, changing definitions and giving the anti-graft law more teeth. In the nearly five years since The Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill, 2013 was introduced in Rajya Sabha, the proposed amendments have been discussed by a Parliamentary Standing Committee, which submitted its report in 2014, the Law Commission, which gave an extensive report in 2015, and finally a Select Committee of Rajya Sabha, which studied the amendments over 15 sittings and several field visits before finalising its recommendations in August 2016. The content, tone and tenor of The Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill, 2018, passed by Rajya Sabha on July 19 and by Lok Sabha on July 24, reflect these detailed deliberations.
The Bill describes bribe as an “undue advantage”, an expression used by the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, which India ratified in 2011. Any “gratification” other than legal remuneration (official salaries and perks) received by a public servant can be construed as an undue advantage. “Gratification” would include things that can’t be measured in money, as well as “gifts”. While endorsing the expression “undue advantage”, however, the Select Committee cautioned that “enforcement/probe agencies may misuse the said expression to harass public servant as well as members of civil society in corruption cases”, and advised that adequate precautions be taken.
As per the changed law, a “collusive” bribe giver can be punished with up to seven years in jail, and fined. The Select Committee wanted courts to decide the minimum punishment for bribe givers on the merits of the specific case. Someone who is forced to give a bribe to avail of a service — a “coercive bribe giver” — is treated differently, however. During the discussion in Lok Sabha, the Congress gave the example of a father who is forced to bribe a government doctor to have his child admitted to hospital. Under the changed law, anyone who is forced to give such a bribe can inform the authorities within seven days to escape punishment. Minister Jitendra Singh assured Lok Sabha that the government would consider increasing this window, given that its beginning may change depending on the circumstances of the bribe-giving. Activists have warned that corrupt officials may delay providing services until seven days after taking the bribe, to escape this provision.
Punishment for corruption has been enhanced to a minimum three years in jail, extendable up to seven years with fine, from the earlier 6 months with an extension up to three years. Repeat offenders will attract 5-10 years in prison, with a fine. A corruption case must be “ordinarily” concluded between two and four years from the date of filing the case. The Select Committee had found cases often went on for 20 years currently. The use of the word “ordinarily” is intended to provide for situations in which the judiciary may feel an extension is required, the government told Lok Sabha.
A new provision says government functionaries at all levels, including those who are retired, can be prosecuted only with the permission of the “competent authority”. Earlier, this immunity was available only to officials of the level of Joint Secretary and above. The request for permission (granted or denied) must be processed within three months. The government has argued that this provision would mitigate corruption and check undue harassment of honest public servants.
A public servant who is found to be in possession of assets disproportionate to his/her legal sources of income will be deemed to have committed “criminal misconduct”, and will have to explain the sources of those assets. Law enforcers have been empowered to immediately attach the illegal property of a public servant, invoking provisions of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act. “Possession” of “illicit property” is cause for investigation/prosecution.A new provision criminalises corporate bribery by bringing in “superior functionaries” of a commercial organisation into the ambit of direct accountability, if an employee/agent is found to have bribed with their approval, for advancement of the organisation’s interests.