It is heartening to know that the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) has chosen 'public participation in promoting integrity and eradicating corruption' as the theme for the Vigilance Awareness Week this year, starting from 31 October (till 5 November).
The Commission, in its circular dated 19 September, said: “Aware, active, involved and empowered public is essential to any anti-corruption campaign...the fight against corruption cannot be won without the citizens’ support.”
The move is heartening because it is increasingly becoming clearer that the only way the fight against corruption in India can be won is by empowering its citizens – as measures of checks and balances within the government to minimise the corruption have all but failed.
Take the example of the CVC itself. It is handicapped in tackling the widespread menace because of its mandate. As it mentions in one of its reports, tilted ‘The Indian Administrative Service: a study of the current state of punitive and preventive vigilance mechanism’, "An important finding that emerged in the earlier part of this study relates to the fact that currently the state governments are required to report to the Central government (and the Commission) cases only where they propose to impose the penalty of dismissal, removal or compulsory retirement,"
"It would seem that rule seven of the All India Services (D&A) Rules, 1966 needs to be amended so as to make a reference to the Commission mandatory in all cases where state governments propose to impose any penalty in a case with a vigilance angle,” the report said. It is self-evident that the CVC is hobbled by its statutory limitations.
Then there are other statutory bodies, such as the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), which examines year after year if the government expenses are incurred as per the norms and the guidelines.
But, unfortunately, the CAG is a toothless body; it can bark but cannot bite. The government machinery is too thick-skinned to respond to mere indictments. The governments mostly remain in denial mode as far as issues of corruption are concerned.
Because of the limited success of such statutory bodies, there came up a public demand for institutionalisation of an autonomous body, like the Lokpal, with punitive powers to punish an officer or a department of the government for corruption.
The Congress government initially strongly resisted the demands of the Anna Hazare-led movement, India Against Corruption – to set up a powerful Lokpal with judicial powers – but when they had to concede to the demands because of public pressure, it sought to dilute some of the stringent provisions demanded by the Anna campaign. Nevertheless, the Congress government deserved the credit for passing the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act in 2013.
But within the span of a year, during 2014-15, the Congress lost power in Delhi – in the Centre as well as the state. The Narendra Modi government, which came into power at the Centre, decided to amend the law and accordingly introduced the Lokpal and Lokayuktas and other related Law (Amendment ) Bill in the Lok Sabha in 2014 December. Since then, it is in a state of limbo.
Arvind Kejriwal, who became the chief minister of Delhi in 2015, was a close associate of Anna, but he too passed a Jan Lokpal bill which was a far cry from the original bill that he and Anna had mooted in 2011.
That just goes to prove that any party or leader in power will scuttle any attempt to make itself accountable to an external agency. That is precisely why it is important to explore the possibility of empowering citizens to contain corruption.
The government would usually frown at the idea of empowering the citizens to ask for accountability; but the Congress government, which came to power in 2004 (contrary to the poll predictions), was magnanimous (it has more to do with the initiative of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who had declined the offer to become the prime minister and had occupied the moral high ground) in enacting the Right to Information Act in 2005.
The RTI Act is the most potent instrument in the hands of an ordinary citizen to make the government accountable. Only a tiny fraction of citizens of India are using RTI now, to great effect. Imagine the impact it will have if an overwhelming majority of Indians use the RTI Act to seek damning information from the government; the shenanigans of all governments, both at the state and the Centre, would be verily exposed on a day-to-day basis. That would go a long way in curbing the corrupt practices.
Another noteworthy initiative of the Congress government was the Whistleblower’s Protection (WPB) Act, which was enacted to enable a citizen to expose the misdeeds of a government while enjoying legal protection from physical harm or judicial harassment.
This bill was passed by the parliament and received the assent of the President on 9 May, 2014. But, before it could be notified, the elections were held and Congress lost power.
The BJP government which had supported the bill in parliament ought to have framed the rules to operationalise the WBP Act, but instead, it decided to move an amended bill in parliament with a view of diluting the stringent provisions of the Act (to remove safeguards available to whistleblowers from prosecution under the Official Secrets Act). The amended bill was passed in Lok Sabha in May 2015. The bill is stuck in the Rajya Sabha since.
On 28 April, 2016, while replying to a question in Rajya Sabha, Jitendra Singh, MoS, Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), stated that the Whistleblowers Protection Amendment Bill is still pending with a committee.
But in a reply to a question by Anjali Bhardwaj, the well-known RTI activist, the Rajya Sabha secretariat replied on 16 August, 2016, that, “The Whistle Blowers Protection (Amendment) Bill, 2015, as passed by Lok Sabha, is pending in the Rajya Sabha. This Bill is not pending with any Parliamentary Committee at present”.
What does this suggest? Either the minister was ill-informed (even while replying to questions in parliament) or he was deliberately misleading the August house. This attitude reflects the government’s intent regarding the bill.
Another casualty of the indifference of the government is the grievance redressal law. The 'Right of Citizens for Time Bound Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of their Grievances' Bill was introduced in parliament by the UPA government in 2011. But it could not be passed before the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha, as it had to go through several committees of the parliament.
Through an order in June 2014, after the NDA government came to power, the PMO instructed the Department of Personnel & Training and the Department of Administrative Reforms to expedite action for the passage of the law.
Though by March 2016, according to a Business Standard report, “the government told parliament that it was not looking at legal justiciable rights for delivery of services but had ‘prepared’ only a government scheme that would allow administrative action in case of deficiency in delivering services. The fate of this, too, now remains unclear."
Sonia will go down in history as someone who made the Indian democracy look vibrant by empowering the citizens through an effective, no-nonsense RTI Act. She masterminded the passage of the bill, despite apprehensions in the upper echelons in the Congress-led government.
Modi now has the chance to make history if he can overcome the resistance of the vested interests in his party and the government, and if he can ensure that the Lokpal Act, the Whistleblowers Protection Act and the Redressal of Grievance Act are passed without further delay. That will make the ordinary Indian citizen the fulcrum of a truly participatory democracy.
The only thing that remains to be seen now is whether Modi will follow Sonia's example?