The Narendra Modi government came to power two years ago on the plank of anti-corruption and good governance. Giving a detailed account of how despite the promises the government has not made much progress on any anti-corruption legislations, the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information (NCPRI) on Thursday alleged that the BJP regime had in fact undermined the “existing legislations and mechanisms” during its rule.
This assertion was made by NCPRI co-conveners Anjali Bharadwaj and Nikhil Dey while presenting a two-year report card on the BJP government at the Centre on the issues of “transparency and accountability”.
Bharadwaj said that even though the government has failed to live up to any of its promises and commitments on anti-corruption and good governance, and that the Whistle Blowers Protection Act (WBP Act), and the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act (LL Act) have not been operationalised despite their being passed by parliament. She said these Acts had also received assent of the president more than two years ago.
Need to protect whistleblowers
Bhardwaj recalled that the demand for a comprehensive whistleblowers act was first raised in 2002 when Satyendra Dubey, an engineer working on the golden quadrangle project, was murdered for exposing corruption in the National Highway Authority of India project. After 12 years of painstaking hardwork, the WBP Act that sought to protect the identity of whistleblowers and guarded them against victimisation was finally passed in 2014.
Flanked by Dhananjay Dubey, Satyendra’s brother, and Sanjay Sahni, a colleague of Ram Kumar Thakur who was shot dead in Muzzafarpur in March 2013 for exposing corruption in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the NCPRI activists said that instead of promulgating rules to operationalise the WBP law, the Centre has moved an amendment bill in parliament that seeks to severely dilute the Act.
“The amendments seek to remove safeguards available to whistleblowers from prosecution under the Official Secrets Act and also introduce wide-ranging exclusions by stating that disclosures should not contain information which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty, integrity, security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State,” the NCPRI charged.
Members of the organisation also observed that the current status of the WBP Amendment Bill was not clear. “Whereas the debate on the bill in the Rajya Sabha and the proposal to refer it to a select committee was not concluded, however, on April 28, 2016 the concerned Minister, in reply to a question in Parliament, stated that the amendment bill had been sent to a committee,” the activists said.
Dubey added that despite assurances from senior BJP leaders, including union ministers Arun Jaitley and Ravi Shankar Prasad, that they were committed to the WBP Act, the government has not taken any steps to prevent the deaths of whistleblowers by operationalising the WBP law. “Close to 60 people have been killed in the last few years for exposing corruption and wrongdoing in the government.”
Sahni said the lives of many whistleblowers could have been saved if the WBP Act was operationalised. He recalled how Thakur was gunned down despite writing to the police and the Bihar government for protection.
The Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act
As for the LL Act, the activists said it was notified in the gazette in January 2014 but has not been operationalised even two years later. The reason for the delay also appears to be political to some extent.
The NCPRI pointed out that “an amendment was required to ensure that in the absence of a recognised leader of opposition, the leader of the single largest party in opposition is included in the selection panel for appointing the Lokpal,” but “instead of moving the single amendment and quickly operationalising the Act, the government has moved several amendments to the Act.”
The amendment bill, called the “Lokpal and Lokayuktas and Other Related Law (Amendment) Bill, 2014,” was deliberated upon by the department-related standing committee on personnel, public grievances, law and justice, which presented its report in December 2015 that is now pending before the Lok Sabha.
Accusing the government of seeking to dilute the Lokpal Act by exempting bureaucrats from declaring assets and liabilities of their spouses and dependent children, the NCPRI co-conveners said “the amendment does away with the requirement of public disclosure of asset declarations on the grounds that disclosure of such information might expose public servants and their families to threats and kidnappings.”
Questioning this argument, Dey said despite lakhs of candidates declaring their assets before the elections and even judges of the Supreme Court and high courts doing so, no one has so far heard of such threats to any of them. Therefore, he said, there was no rationale behind this amendment.
Dey also noted that the proposed amendments to the Prevention of Corruption Act required the prior approval of the Lokpal to investigate cases of corruption related to decisions or recommendations made. “If the Lokpal is not set up and operationalised how will the provisions be acted upon,” he asked.
Preventing corruption and grievance redressal
In the context of the pending amendments to the Prevention of Corruption Act, which seek to criminalise all bribe-giving, NCPRI said the absence of an effective grievance redressal mechanism will mean that even those people who are forced to pay a bribe to access their legitimate entitlements, could face up to seven years in prison.
On the Grievance Redress (GR) Bill too, the NCPRI said the BJP government had repeatedly stated that it was committed to re-introducing and passing it as it had lapsed with the dissolution of the last Lok Sabha. Soon after Modi took over, the prime minister’s office had in a communication on June 24, 2014 stated that passing the GR Bill was “part of immediate thrust areas of the government”. The concerned minister has also reiterated the commitment, at least thrice.
But in March this year, in response to a question in parliament, the government made no reference to the legislation and instead stated that it was preparing a scheme, known as Delivery of Services and Grievances Redressal Scheme, 2015. “From these statements of the government made in parliament, it appeared that the government is reneging on its commitment to bring in a statutory framework for time-bound and effective redress of grievances,” feared Bhardwaj.
In light of these developments, the NCPRI has urged the Centre to immediately operationalise the WBP Act without the proposed regressive amendments and re-introduce the GR legislation. It has also urged the Centre to not dilute the LL Act and instead just move a single line amendment allowing for the leader of the single largest opposition party to be a member of the selection panel, so that the law could be operationalised urgently.