It is significant that Parliament has approved amendments to the Prevention of Corruption Act, which Union Minister Arun Jaitley had dubbed as one of the most poorly drafted pieces of legislation. Changes to this law have been in the offing for long and have come about now after a recognition that it was hurting decision-making in public enterprises, especially in state-owned banks. The latest amendments make it mandatory for investigative agencies to seek the prior approval of the central or state government to launch a probe into charges of corruption against serving public servants and former officials.
The law does not provide immunity any longer to a bribe-giver by seeking to punish those attempting to grease palms and offering protection to those coerced into giving a bribe if they report such coercion within a week of the incident. The government has also sought to fast track the completion of graft cases launched by the federal anti-corruption agency by stipulating a period of two years.
Some of these changes will be welcomed, specially by many former bankers now at the receiving end for having approved loans to companies which later turned sour. It is doubtful, however, whether a judiciary with capacity constraints would be able to deliver on the deadline for completion of court proceedings. For now, the law may help assuage the concerns of many civil servants, both serving and retired, but it is at best a short-term fix. What needs to be recognised and debated is whether public enterprises, including banks — the majority of which the government owns and which are supposed to be run commercially — should be under the oversight of the CBI and the national auditor or if accountability should rest with the boards of these firms.
The probe agencies may have a case when they say that the nature of economic offences has changed drastically. That may well be true but it is incumbent on them to prove that they are equipped to not just tackle complex cases of fraud and corruption but also to bring offenders to justice speedily. It would help if they take a cue from some of their peers elsewhere in the world such as the UK’s Serious Frauds Office which focuses on a small number of big ticket crimes but more importantly applies a statement of principles before taking up a case such as the element of public interest and the scale of potential financial losses. That should cut down fishing expeditions and discourage politically motivated briefs besides boosting the credibility of investigators.