Last week, the Supreme Court “requested” a search committee to suggest by February-end a panel of names for appointment of the country’s first Lokpal, an anti-corruption ombudsman. A look at the long history of India’s efforts to appoint a Lokpal:
Amid repeated demands for such an ombudsman, many attempts were made at legislation, with Lokpal Bills introduced in 1971, 1977, 1985, 1989, 1996, 1998, 2001, 2005 and 2008, but none of these was passed. It was four decades after the introduction of the first Bill that the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act was enacted in December 2013. This was the fallout of a public movement for a Jan Lokpal Bill, initiated by activist Anna Hazare and others such as Kiran Bedi and Arvind Kejriwal. Under pressure at a time when it was facing several allegations of corruption, the then UPA government brought the Bill and it was passed after several hurdles.
Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act
The Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013 was notified on January 1, 2014. It provides for establishing a body to be called the Lokpal and headed by a Chairperson, who is or has been a Chief Justice of India, or is or has been a judge of the Supreme Court, or an eminent person who fulfils eligibility criteria as specified. Of its other members, not exceeding eight, 50% are to be judicial members, provided that not less than 50% of the members belong to the Scheduled Castess, Scheduled Tribes, OBCs, minorities, and women.
For states, the Act says: “Every State shall establish a body to be known as the Lokayukta for the State, if not so established, constituted or appointed, by a law made by the State Legislature, to deal with complaints relating to corruption against certain public functionaries, within a period of one year from the date of commencement of this Act.”
Lokpal will have an “Inquiry Wing, headed by the Director of Inquiry, for the purpose of conducting preliminary inquiry into any offence alleged to have been committed by a public servant punishable under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988. It will also have a “Prosecution Wing headed by the Director of Prosecution for the purpose of prosecution of public servants in relation to any complaint by the Lokpal under this Act”. These are to deal with complaints against public servants; the chairperson and members of the Lokpal too come under the definition of “public servant”.
Jurisdiction of Lokpal
The Lokpal Act covers a wide range of public servants — from the Prime Minister, ministers and MP, to groups A, B, C and D officers of the central government. “Lokpal shall inquire or cause an inquiry to be conducted into any matter involved in, or arising from, or connected with, any allegation of corruption made in a complaint” in respect of the Prime Minister, the Act says. However, it does not allow a Lokpal inquiry if the allegation against the Prime Minister relates to international relations, external and internal security, public order, atomic energy and space. Also, complaints against the Prime Minister are not to be probed unless the full Lokpal bench considers the initiation of inquiry and at least 2/3rds of the members approve it. Such an inquiry against the Prime Minister (if conducted) is to be held in camera and if the Lokpal comes to the conclusion that the complaint deserves to be dismissed, the records of the inquiry are not to be published or made available to anyone.
The search committee
Once the Bill was passed, applications were invited on January 17, 2014 for filling up the post of Chairperson and eight posts of members. The same day, the search committee rules were notified, but appointments to the committee were not made. Lok Sabha elections followed, and a new government was formed in May 2014. The same year, the NGO Common Cause filed a petition in the Supreme Court, and later a contempt petition, over the delay. On September 27, 2018, the search committee was constituted. It is chaired by retired SC Justice Ranjana Desai, and its members are former Allahabad High Court Justice Sakha Ram Singh Yadav, former Solicitor General Ranjit Kumar, former State Bank of India chair Arundhati Bhattacharya, retired IAS officer Lalit K Panwar, former Gujarat Police chief Shabbirhusein S Khandwawala, Prasar Bharati chairperson A Surya Prakash and former ISRO head A S Kiran Kumar. On January 17, 2019, the Supreme Court “requested” the search committee to prepare its panel by the end of the next month and set March 7, 2019 as the next date of hearing.
Once the search committee submits its recommendation for the Lokpal and its members, a selection committee will consider those names and forward them to the President for his consideration. The selection committee is chaired by the Prime Minister, and its members are the Lok Sabha Speaker, Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, the Chief Justice of India or a Judge of the Supreme Court nominated by him, and an eminent jurist as nominated by the President. Under the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, a Lokayukta is to be appointed in every state within one year of the passing of the Act, but several states are yet to appoint such an institution.