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Thursday, September 22, 2011

(Published in The New Indian Express, School Edition, on 21 September 2011, retrieved from http://expressbuzz.com/school/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-lokpal-bill/316249.html)


NOTE: This article is not opinion. It's a factual summary of the events surrounding the Lokpal Bill.







Given how recently Team Anna Hazare and the India Against Corruption movement took the nation by storm, it may come as a surprise that the Lokpal Bill was first proposed more than forty years ago – before a lot of the activists agitating for it today were even born!

‘Lokpal’, which means ‘Protector of the People’, was conceived as an anti-corruption agency, independent of the government. This way, people will be able to file complaints against politicians with a neutral ombudsman.

But disagreements over the people and institutions that could be investigated by the Lokpal, as well as the powers of the Lokpal, have delayed the enactment of the law. The government and civil society came to a head over the issue earlier this year, and finally reached a compromise regarding the discussion of the Lokpal Bill.

The History of the Lokpal Bill

The idea of the ‘Lokpal’ came up during a Parliamentary debate about redressal of grievances, as early as 1963. It was envisioned as a committee headed by an ombudsman, with its own prosecution and investigation wing.

Five years later, Shanti Bhushan – who was part of the panel formulating the Lokpal Bill in 2011 – introduced a version, which was passed in the Lok Sabha in 1969, but was not taken up in the Rajya Sabha.

The Bill was reintroduced nine more times, but lapsed each time. Worse, it came to be associated with a jinx, as every government that took up the Bill for discussion was voted out of office in the subsequent election.

What Happened in 2011?

The country was hit by an unusual number of scams, involving politicians, in 2010. First, Suresh Kalmadi was implicated in the Commonwealth Games scam. Next, tapes of corporate lobbyist Niira Radia’s conversations with several politicians and industry captains leaked to the media, exposing collusions that led to the 2G spectrum allocation scam. Meanwhile, Karnataka Lokayukta Santosh Hegde’s investigations into illegal mining showed that two of the state’s Cabinet Ministers had been using their connections to smooth over irregularities.
With trust in the government at the state and centre at an all-time low, in April 2011, social activist Anna Hazare went on an indefinite fast at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, demanding immediate passing of the Bill. With his pristine white clothes and air of simplicity, the seventy-three-year-old Gandhian became the ideal anti-corruption mascot, with the media covering his fast round the clock.

After a four-day hunger strike, the Centre caved in to his demands, and Prime Minister Manmohan singh promised to re-introduce the Lokpal Bill in the monsoon session of Parliament.

But that did not satisfy Hazare. He and his supporters, who included the likes of former IPS officer Kiran Bedi and Magsaysay Award winner Arvind Kejriwal, said the civil society must be involved in the drafting of the Bill.

In an unprecedented move, the government agreed to a Joint Drafting Committee involving both politicians and civilians. Five Cabinet Ministers (P. Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, Pranab Mukherjee, Veerappa Moily and Salman Khurshid) and five civil society members – Hazare, Kejriwal, Santosh Hegde, Shanti Bhushan and his son Prashant Bhushan – hashed out their versions of the Bill.

However, they could not agree upon various key provisions of the Bill (see box) despite several meetings. Meanwhile, allegations of corruption against the civil society members themselves sullied their campaign. The civil society panel walked out of a meeting in disgust, and called the version of the Bill the government came up with “toothless”.

Lokpal Bill vs Jan Lokpal Bill

The version of the Bill mooted by the civil society panel came to be known as the ‘Jan Lokpal Bill’. Using social networks and the media, Team Anna (as the civil society panel was dubbed) spread awareness about the main features of the two versions.

The Jan Lokpal Bill wanted the Prime Minister, the conduct of MPs in Parliament, the lower bureaucracy and higher judiciary brought under the ambit of the Lokpal. It also wanted the Lokpal to be able to initiate investigations suo motu, without having to wait for complaints. However, the government staunchly refused.

In the end, it seemed the only issue both Bills could agree on was the strength of the Lokpal committee – a Chairperson and eight other members. However, they did not see eye to eye on what qualifications the members must have! (See box for more details on the differences.)

Anna Hazare’s Second Agitation

Anna Hazare had announced that unless the civil society panel’s version of the Lokpal Bill, or a Bill accommodating their most crucial concerns, was taken up in the monsoon session of Parliament, he would go on another hunger strike. And when the government introduced its own version of the Bill, to the criticism of various Opposition parties, he promptly announced a fast-unto-death at Jantar Mantar or JP Park in Delhi.

On the back of a midnight crackdown on supporters of yoga guru Baba Ramdev at Ramlila Maidan, the government had already been lambasted by the media and other parties for its high-handedness and brutality in sending baton-wielding police to subdue unarmed civilians.

The panicked authorities arrested Anna Hazare on the morning of his proposed fast. Other activists from his team, including Kiran Bedi, were detained too. As the media and social networks streamed in minute-by-minute updates, the government claimed it was not involved in the arrest, and that Delhi Police had taken action of its own accord.

Hazare began his fast in jail. He refused to leave the jail, despite being released, unless he was given permission to fast on his own terms, without restrictions on the number of days or people at the venue.

Finally, he was allowed to fast at Ramlila Maidan. The next twelve days saw their fair share of drama, even as negotiations between Team Anna and the Centre broke down repeatedly. Kiran Bedi improvised a skit, using a dupatta as a mask, to show how two-faced politicians were. Prominent actors from Bollywood and Kollywood, including Aamir Khan, Om Puri and Vijay, made their way to the dais to voice their support for Hazare’s movement.

But there were critics too. The BJP, which had earlier jumped on the Anna bandwagon, began to hem and haw about the civil society trying to force its hand in an unparliamentary manner. Santosh Hegde voiced his doubts too, and distanced himself from the movement. Arguably the strangest protest came from a Dalit group, which accused the civil society of insulting Ambedkar by criticising the provisions in the Constitution. Social activist Aruna Roy called the civil society panel’s version of the Bill “draconian” and drafted her own version.

Others cautioned that without another body to monitor the Lokpal itself, the anti-corruption agency may turn corrupt. Still others worried about the lack of clarity on various points, such as the exact powers of the Lokpal, and the provisions for appeal for cases under trial.

Within the Congress itself, MPs were divided. Some, including Priya Dutt and Datta Meghe, came out in support of the Jan Lokpal Bill, over the government’s version.

As talks failed, Anna Hazare encouraged his supporters to court arrest to break the deadlock. He also announced that the government should agree to three conditions in order for him to break his fast - a citizen charter on the Bill, the inclusion of the lower bureaucracy under the ambit of the Lokpal, and the establishment of Lokayukta in all states.

Following a discussion in Parliament, the government agreed to his demands in principle. The activist broke his fast the following day, on television, but announced that it was only a pause in his agitation, and he would continue to fight for the institution of a powerful Lokpal till the Bill was passed and enacted into Law.



PROVISIONS OF THE JAN LOKPAL BILL

Lokpal will not report to the government, but will be supervised by the Election Commission and Cabinet Secretary.
Members will not be elected, but appointed by a panel, and the selection interviews will be made public.
Investigations into each complaint must be completed within a year, and trials within the next two years. Complaints against officers of the Lokpal must be dealt with in a month, and if substantiated, the officer must be dismissed within two months.
Non-cooperative agencies which cause delays to the work of the Lokpal will be penalised.
On a monthly basis, the Lokpal will publish a list of cases dealt with and the status of each, on its website.
Other anti-corruption watchdogs such as the Central Vigilance Commission and the anti-corruption branch of the Central Bureau of Investigation will be merged with the Lokpal.
Lokpal will be supported by Lokayukta at the state level.
Whistleblowers – people who alert the Lokpal about corruption cases – will be protected.

THE POINTS OF DISSENT

GOVERNMENT’S DRAFT BILL


CIVIL SOCIETY’S BILL
The Lokpal cannot investigate a case on suspicion. A complaint must be made.
The Lokpal can initiate action suo motu.
The Prime Minister can only be investigated by the Lokpal after he demits office
The Prime Minister falls under the purview of the Lokpal even when he is in office
Higher judiciary will be covered by the ‘Judicial Accountability Bill’ and cannot be investigated by the Lokpal
Members of the higher judiciary can be investigated by the Lokpal.
Conduct of MPs within Parliament cannot be investigated by the Lokpal
The Lokpal can take action against MPs for their conduct in Parliament
Only senior officers of the bureaucracy fall under the ambit of the Lokpal
The Lokpal can investigate even the lower bureaucracy.
NGOs can be investigated by the Lokpal.
The Lokpal will not investigate NGOs.
The Lokpal will only be an advisory body, forwarding reports.
The Lokpal will have police powers as well as powers of prosecuting those found guilty.
The Lokpal will not be merged with the CVC or CBI.
All existing anti-corruption bodies will be merged with the Lokpal.
Quantum of punishment for corruption can range from 6 months to 7 years.
Quantum of punishment for corruption can range from 10 years to life imprisonment.
In case of complaints against members of the Lokpal, an external independent committee will be set up to look into them.
The Lokpal will investigate complaints against its own officers.

TIMELINE
4 April, 2011
Anna Hazare announces fast at Jantar Mantar in Delhi
5 April, 2011
National Advisory Council headed by UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi rejects UPA government’s 2010 version of the Bill, as Hazare begins his fast.
7 April, 2011
Members of Anna Hazare’s team meet Cabinet Minister Kapil Sibal, fail to arrive at consensus. Anna Hazare calls for a Jail Bharo Andolan in protest.
8 April, 2011
Government agrees to involve civil society in drafting the Bill.
9 April, 2011
Anna ends his fast, and sets August 15 as the deadline for passing the Lokpal Bill. Celebrations across India greet his ‘victory’.
16 April, 2011

The Joint Drafting Committee meets to finalise the rules for the process of drafting the Lokpal Bill.
May-June, 2011
Several meetings between the civil society panel and the government panel end in stalemate regarding important provisions in the Bill.
4-5 June, 2011
Yoga guru Baba Ramdev begins an anti-corruption agitation at Ramlila Maidan, which ends with a harsh crackdown by the Delhi Police, wounding hundreds of his supporters.
6 June, 2011
PM justifies police action
22 June, 2011
Congress leader Digvijay Singh hints that Anna’s next attempt at an agitation could end in the same manner as Ramdev’s.
14 August, 2011
Congress leader Manish Tewari alleges irregularities in the running of Hazare’s trust, and calls the activist corrupt.
15 August, 2011
Hazare says he is deeply hurt by the allegations, dares the government to prove them, offers proof of their falsehood, and announces an indefinite fast defying police restrictions.
16 August, 2011
Anna Hazare taken into preventive custody by Delhi Police, causing a furore across the nation. He begins his fast in jail.
19 August, 2011
Anna Hazare moves to Ramlila Maidan after paying his respects to the M K Gandhi shrine at Rajghat. Huge crowds gather over the next 9 days; groups in other cities begin coordinated indefinite fasts too.
21 August, 2011
Supporters of Hazare court arrest by holding black flag demonstrations outside the residences of several politicians.
23 August, 2011
PM appeals to Hazare to call off his agitation.
25 August, 2011
Hazare lays down three conditions to break the fast.
27 August, 2011
Special session of Parliament passes a ‘Sense of the House’ in both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, agreeing to Hazare’s three conditions for breaking his fast. Hazare says “half the battle is won”, and announces that he will break his fast next morning.
28 August, 2011
Hazare sips coconut water, fed to him by two girls – a Dalit and a Muslim. He is hospitalised, and discharged after being monitored for three days.

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