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Justice Santosh Hegde: ‘The truth is that no political party wants Lokayukta to function effectively, but none has the courage to abolish it’

The former Karnataka Lokayukta spoke to The Indian Express on the August 11 order abolishing the ACB to reconstitute the Lokayukta police to investigate corruption cases and the institution’s history, among other related topics

Santosh HegdeSupreme Court (retd) Justice Santosh Hegde. (File Photo)

Supreme Court (retd) Justice Santosh Hegde headed the Lokayukta when it released a report on illegal mining, implicating three chief ministers of the state. He spoke to The Indian Express on the August 11 order abolishing the ACB to reconstitute the Lokayukta police to investigate corruption cases, the institution’s history, the challenges ahead, and the role of political parties in fighting corruption. Excerpts:

How significant is the Karnataka High Court decision to abolish the Anti-Corruption Bureau in the state police and resurrect the Lokayukta police powers to tackle corruption?

In 1983, a new political party (Janata Party) came to power in Karnataka, and drafted the Karnataka Lokayukta Act and gave it powers to tackle corruption, without knowing the consequences of the move. However, the Karnataka Lokayukta did not function very well for many decades… I was the Lokayukta from 2006 to 2011… I submitted a report on illegal mining. One of the CMs I named (B S Yediyurappa) had to go to jail. He was acquitted later. In 2016, when the Congress came back to power, they took away the power of the Lokayukta to investigate corruption cases and gave it to the ACB. The ACB works under the Home Minister and is naturally under the CM and the political party in power. This was a consequence of none of the administrators of the state wanting an agency that would investigate their own functioning…

If a good Lokayukta is appointed, they would certainly do a wonderful job of fighting corruption. It is a very good judgment from the Karnataka HC, but this alone would not give the expected powers to the Lokayukta to prosecute corruption cases.

Nearly 72% of cases where the ACB carried out raids did not result in prosecution because it did not get a government sanction for prosecution of government officials. Won’t the Karnataka Lokayukta police face the same problem?

There should be an amendment to the Karnataka Lokayukta Act (1984). At present, it mandates sanction from the government to prosecute public servants for corruption. Sanction is a major problem… it is contrary to Indian constitutional norms like Article 14 — the equality clause. Sanction is needed only to prosecute a public servant. But in corruption cases, even ordinary citizens are involved as abettors of the crime…

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Sanctions have become very difficult to obtain. Even if they are granted, it is after many years and the purpose of investigation and prosecution suffers… I am of the view that it is no longer necessary since the apprehension can be addressed by the court on whether a case involves malicious prosecution. It cannot be decided by the government. There is still the possibility of the government playing dirty games by sending amenable officers who will listen to the government… rather than the Lokayukta. The background of officers should be vetted before they are posted to the Lokayukta police and the Lokayukta should have powers to say yes or no… The government should also provide the necessary infrastructure and powers for the Lokayukta police to carry out criminal investigations.

Since the ruling BJP had stated in its election manifesto for 2018 Karnataka polls that it would revive the Lokayukta’s powers, what do you think it will do now?

I was concerned that the state government may go to the Supreme Court and take time in order to drag the proceedings. They (the BJP) have said they are committed to it (strengthening the Lokayukta), but we must remember that they have been in power for three years and they have not done anything about it.

The internal corruption in the Karnataka Lokayukta itself has been a cause of concern in the past.

It is not an issue of (introducing) checks and balances for the Lokayukta. The fault does not lie with individuals but it lies with society. These days society respects only the rich and powerful, unlike the society around 25 or 30 years ago, which used to boycott the corrupt… I would not blame the institution of the Lokayukta for being affected by corruption. However, the fact is that if the head is clean, the rest of the body can be clean. Corruption cannot be abolished but it can be reduced.

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Why do you think the Karnataka Lokayukta gained acclaim as an institution for fighting corruption a decade ago?

At that point, it was people who were not wanted in government service because they were not willing to listen to illegal advice or corrupt advice who were sent off to the Lokayukta. They turned out to be assets for the institution – the police officers, the advisors. When this was the situation, they brought in a person with a dubious standing as the head of the institution (Justice Bhaskar Rao and his son were accused of extortion charges using the Lokayukta powers).

What is the level of commitment of various political parties to fighting corruption with institutions like the Lokayukta?

The truth is that none of the political parties want this institution to function effectively, but the fact is that none of them also has the courage to abolish it. What they are trying to do is denude the institution of its powers so that it loses credibility.

Fighting corruption is only a slogan for political parties. In 2011, when we submitted the report on illegal mining… it was not implemented by the ruling BJP… At the time the Congress marched from Bengaluru to Ballari, saying the Lokayukta report should be implemented. They came to power in 2013 on this plank of illegal mining but did not implement the report… On the contrary, they took away the powers of the Lokayukta…

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The conviction rates in corruption cases are also only at around 27% and this shows the attitude of the people in power. One of the CMs named in the illegal mining report was acquitted by the High Court, but the party in power did not appeal against the order.

First published on: 18-08-2022 at 08:13:53 pm
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