August 5, 2015 1:46:46 am
In 1984, well before the Prevention of Corruption Act came into existence, Karnataka Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde, a man who valued probity in public life so much that he quit, twice, after charges of corruption and impropriety were levelled against him, helped create a revolutionary law for greater accountability in public life. The Karnataka Lokayukta Act, 1984, brought even the Chief Minister within its ambit.
In its manifesto for the 1983 Assembly elections, Hegde’s Janata Party had promised to create an institution to address complaints against public servants. The Administrative Reforms Commission had recommended the creation of a body “to improve standards of public administration, by looking into complaints against administrative actions, including cases of corruption, favouritism and official indiscipline”.
Since coming into force on January 15, 1986, the Karnataka Lokayukta Act has helped countless ordinary people, brought errant public servants to book, and ensured a general improvement in administration.
Depending on which retired Supreme Court judge or Karnataka High Court Chief Justice headed it, the Lokayukta has been either a high profile corruption-buster, or a quiet, behind-the-scenes public grievances forum. The image of the crusader is the legacy of the tenure of Justice N G Venkatachala, even though, as former Lokayukta Justice N Santosh Hegde put it, “the main aim of the institution is to look at the needs of the poor, to ensure that they are not running from pillar to post, and to ensure good governance”.
In 2010, the Lokayukta, under Justice Hedge, moved from tackling misgovernance and corruption at the bottom of the government pyramid to start acting against MLAs and ministers. The arrest of several top leaders on charges of corruption, and the public protests for a strong Lokpal Bill made politicians in Karnataka increasingly uncomfortable with the Lokayukta Act of 1984. Since coming to power in 2013, the Congress government has made attempts to amend the Act to make the Lokayukta more amenable to influence.
In February 2014, the government proposed a new law modelled on UPA-2’s central Lokpal and Lokayukta Act of 2013 to replace the 1984 Act, in which the Lokpal would be a panel including nominees from the government, rather than a retired judge. The government backed off after incumbent Lokayukta Justice Y Bhaskar Rao, Justice Hegde, and others protested.
The alleged extortion racket in the Lokayukta involving Justice Rao’s son Ashwin Rao, and Justice Rao’s refusal to step down, however, opened a fresh window for the government to tinker with the 1984 Act.
Early drafts of the new law proposed doing away completely with the grievance redressal powers of the Lokayukta, and the amendment Bill, when introduced on July 30, allowed the removal of the Lokayukta by a simple majority in the state legislature.
Though neither of these provisions ultimately made it to the Bill that was passed in the House on July 31, the new law has diluted the 1984 Act significantly, and is likely to achieve the objective of forcing Lokayukta Justice Rao to step down.
The process to remove the Lokayukta can now be initiated by one third of the members of either House, fewer than the two-thirds required earlier, even though the final removal will continue to need the support of two-thirds of members in both Houses.
Also, under the amended law, the Lokayukta will be “precluded from discharge of his duties during the pendency of motion for his removal”.
The Assembly debate showed a clear disconnect between the public’s adoration for the institution, and cries for dismantling it among a section of the elected representatives. Warnings from a few in the opposition ensured that the “baby was not thrown out with the bathwater”.
But Karnataka Law Minister T B Jayachandra, who is of the view that the Lokayukta Act of 1984 is not relevant any longer, has expressed his intention to make another attempt soon at bringing a law based on the Lokpal Act of 2013.
Among the 17 states that have Lokayukta laws in place, the Karnataka Act of 1984 is considered the strongest. It now seems it is only a matter of time before this popular law is rolled up and replaced.
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