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On Rocky Roads: WTF Is Happening With The Lokpal Bill?

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The Jan Lokpal Bill, also referred to as the Citizens’ Ombudsman Bill, was created to fight corruption by appointing an ombudsman (a government official) to investigate corruption allegations against any organization, company or public authority. 

Although it was introduced in the Parliament for the first time in 1963 it had been stalled for 5 decades for several reasons (government oppositions, demand for amendments, etc). However, it grabbed national attention when a famous social activist, Anna Hazare went on a 98-hour hunger strike in Delhi in April 2011.

Following the strike, a committee headed by Pranab Mukherjee, the then Finance Minister was set up to provide suggestions for final amendments to the bill so that it doesn’t face any more opposition in the Parliament. It was finally passed in the Lok Sabha on 27th December 2011 and in the Rajya Sabha on 17th December 2013.

Here are some of the key features of Lokpal Bill

  • At the Centre level, the Bill will be known as Lokpal Bill and on the State level, the Lokayukta Bill.
  • States will have to enact Lokayukta within one year of the implementation in the centre.
  • The Bill will be functional against any Indian bureaucrat or minister (except the armed forces).
  • It has made it mandatory for public servants to declare their assets along with that of their spouses.
  • A Lokpal committee is to be set up to look into corruption charges. 
    
  • The committee will be completely independent and is not answerable to the CBI or police.
  • The committee has the power to conduct investigations into govt. agencies like CBI and RBI.
  • Investigations must be completed within a period of 6 months after corruption charges are filed.
  • Cases under Lokpal will be heard in special courts.
  • The Bill also ensures that public servants who act as whistleblowers are protected. 
  • But if the whistleblower’s allegation is proven to be false, then he/she will be fined Rs 2 lakh.

Its major success was transparency in RERA

Since 2013, Lokpal’s only major success came when it brought transparency to RERA (Real Estate Regulation and Development Act, 2016). The Act made it mandatory for all real estate projects where the land is over 500 square meters, to register with RERA in order to provide greater transparency in construction and sale of property.

Since then, more than 35,000 properties across India have been registered with standard property prices and areas (sqm) accessible to the general public.

This made it hard for ponzi builders to swindle money from people for unregistered properties. Earlier corrupt builders used to charge buyers lakhs of rupees in cash for flats in under-construction buildings, with the promise to hand over a freshly built apartment in 2-3 years. But most of these buildings were based on land that hadn’t even been registered or leased from the government. And years later, when buyers came asking for keys to their “dream homes” they would realise that the builder had eloped with the money.

Housing scams worth crores have flourished like this in India for decades before RERA was introduced. And the Lokpal Act has brought these scams to the limelight.

But, it doesn’t work where it matters

Despite such a great feat, the Lokpal Bill fails to work where it’s most needed – in defence and politics. The defence ministry and the armed forces are under protection from the Official Secrets Act (OSA). This means that even though Lokpal has the power to conduct investigations into these departments, it is prohibited by the OSA under the pretext of “national safety and secrecy”. 

Take the recent Rafale Jets deal, for example. The deal had been stalled for 15 years before it was finally signed in 2018. Ever since, people have raised multiple questions about how many jets were purchased at what actual cost, and what are the exact details of the deal. Some experts have even called it an expensive deal that makes a huge dent in the country’s defence budget. Meanwhile, some others have filed RTIs and corruption charges against the defence ministry for signing an overpriced deal and pocketing the profits. These charges were supposed to be investigated by the Lokpal committee, but the government thwarted every effort for such an investigation. Reason? Since the Rafale jets are fighter aircraft to be used by the military for national defence, they are protected by the Official Secrets Act.

And this is not the only time when the Lokpal has proved ineffective.

In general, all military deals, deaths and humanitarian atrocities under AFSPA, trials of PoWs and spies are all protected from Lokpal’s investigations.

Remember the George Fernandes defence scandal? The Bofors scam? None of them can be brought under the purview of Lokpal. And how can they, when…

The Bill is not even completely implemented yet

Even though it was passed in 2013, the Bill still remains dysfunctional. After being passed in the Rajya Sabha, when it reached the President for final approval, it got sent back to the Lok Sabha for additional amendments. Since then, the Bill has been stuck in a loop of amendments and opposition in both houses. Till 2016, there was no leader of opposition in the Parliament because of which it couldn’t be passed without a unanimous confirmation.

Then in 2017, the government was asked to start creating a list of members to appoint to the Lokpal committee and submit it to the CJI for approval. But as of October 2018, the government has done nothing on this front.

The Lokpal Bill which came to the limelight 5 years ago before the 2014 elections, is still stuck in bureaucracy. Do you think it will finally be implemented before the next elections?

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