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Bengal Lokayukta Didn't Complete a Single Probe in First 26 Months of Term, Reveals RTI

West Bengal Lokayukta Ashim Kumar Roy received only 30 complaints between January 11, 2019 and March 22, 2021, and 'disposed of' 16 of them.

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Kolkata: West Bengal Lokayukta Ashim Kumar Roy, a retired Calcutta high court judge whose three-year tenure as the state’s second Lokayukta ended on January 10, did not complete a single investigation in the first 26 months of his term, replies from the office of the Lokayukta to questions asked using the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005, revealed.

According to the West Bengal Lokayukta Act, 2003, investigations must be completed within one year.

The Lokayukta received only 30 complaints between January 11, 2019 and March 22, 2021, and disposed of 16 of them. But the Lokayukta office refused to clarify what “disposal of a complaint” means while answering the first RTI question. The original reply said that no investigation was complete yet.

The Mamata Banerjee government in December decided to reappoint Roy for a second full term, but governor Jagdeep Dhankhar has sought clarifications on the reappointment procedure and is yet to sign the paper.

The Lokayukta – selected by a committee that includes the chief minister and the leader of the opposition in respective states – is mandated to investigate allegations of corruption against bureaucrats, public servants and elected public representatives. A similar position for the Union government is called Lokpal.

Leader of the opposition in the state, Suvendu Adhikari, lodged a complaint with the governor, alleging that the government did not answer his queries made two days before the December 27 meeting that was held to appoint the Lokayukta.

While the Lokayukta office remains vacant till the governor takes a call, information brought to the fore by RTI activist Biswanath Goswami reveals that the functioning of the institution has remained far from being an “institution worth people’s trust”.

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West Bengal passed the Lokayukta Act in 2003, and the first Lokayukta was appointed in 2006. However, after retired high court judge Samaresh Banerjee’s tenure ended in 2009, the state kept the position vacant till 2019. Ashim Kumar Roy took charge as the new Lokayukta on January 11, 2019.

Banerjee had, on several occasions, publicly said that he could not use the institution to proper effect because of the lack of infrastructural support he was provided with. The state was under the Left Front rule at that time.

The Banerjee-led government, which stormed to power in 2011, did not appoint any Lokayukta for the first seven years of its rule. In July 2018, the state assembly amended the Act of 2003 and kept the chief minister out of the purview of the Lokayukta.

A sorry state of affairs

The RTI replies have revealed that a total of 240 cases filed with the Lokayukta since 2007 were still pending when Roy took charge. In the first 26 months of his tenure – between January 11, 2019 and March 22, 2021 – another 30 complaints were lodged. Of these total 270 complaints, 143 from before January 2019 and 15 from those lodged during Roy’s tenure had been ‘disposed of’, the reply said.

The RTI reply is dated March 24, 2021 and came from the public information officer at the office of the Lokayukta.

However, the RTI response declined to divulge any details regarding any of the complaints, arguing that no case had “matured for recommendation” and “were either in the process of enquiry or investigation”.

Citing Section 10 (2)(a) of West Bengal Lokayukta Act, 2003, the RTI reply said that every preliminary enquiry must be conducted in private and the identity of the complainant and the public servant concerned cannot be revealed. Section 16 of the Act reiterates the condition of confidentiality at the stage of preliminary inquiry.

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The Act, nevertheless, says the result of every investigation must be made public. Denial of information regarding details of complaints means no investigation has yet been completed.

Interestingly, the reply also says that no complaint was yet to be found as baseless or to have been filed with mala fide intentions. The law has provisions for action against complainants making fabricated or baseless allegations.

These responses did not satisfy Goswami, who found the answers to be evasive and misleading. “Neither did any case mature for recommendation of action nor was any complaint found to be false or baseless. And yet 158 cases had been disposed of. How’s that possible?” asked Goswami, who runs an organisation named Socio-Legal Research Foundation, dealing with laws, policies and governance.

Goswami appealed against the reply in May 2021. He asked for clarification of what ‘disposal’ meant. In the appeal, he also argued that Section 10 (2)(a)of the West Bengal Lokayukta Act, 2003, was no longer valid, as it had been superseded by the RTI Act of 2005.

Section 22 of the RTI Act says that the Act is to have an overriding effect, meaning “the provisions of this Act shall have effect notwithstanding anything inconsistent therewith contained in the Officials Secrets Act, 1923, and any other law for the time being in force or in any instrument having effect by virtue of any law other than this Act.”

Goswami had also sought copies of the annual reports, which the Lokayukta’s office is required to submit before the state government, which in turn is supposed to table it in the assembly. The reply only informed him that the annual reports for January 11 to March 31, 2019 and April 1, 2019 to March 31, 2020, had been submitted but did not share a copy.

In August, the first appellate authority, the deputy registrar at the office of the Lokayukta, held that “query-wise specific information” had been provided by the public information officer in his March 24 reply. It did not offer any clarification regarding what ‘disposal’ of a case meant.

An official at the Lokayukta’s office, who did not want to be identified, told The Wire, “When cases taken up for preliminary investigation are found to lack in merit for proceeding with an investigation, they too are counted as disposed of. The delay in completing investigations has largely been caused by the pandemic.”

The official did not want to come on the record, saying that regarding any RTI response, official comments, if any, will come only from appellate authorities. He did not clarify why the office did not provide Goswami with break-ups of the ways of ‘disposal’, as was sought in the application.

The numbers stand in sharp contrast with the performance of the Lokayukta in some other states.

In 2019, while the West Bengal Lokayukta received only 16 complaints and disposed of 11, the Maharashtra Lokayukta received 6,030 complaints and disposed of 6,275, including those pending from previous years. The Lokayukta of Odisha received 1,132 cases between March and December 2019, disposed of 584 of them along with another 166 pending from previous tenure. The Karnataka Lokayukta and two upa-Lokayuktas disposed of 3,878 cases between April 2019 and March 2020.

All these states have offered details of how the complaints were disposed – i.e, by way of dismissing the charge, or recommending action or further investigation.

Goswami will make another appeal against this order before the chief information commissioner of the state. But he also argues that a particular government decision of 2019 is acting as a deterrent for people interesting in lodging complaints.

He points out that in an email to him in November 2020, the registrar at the office of the Lokayukta informed him that all complaints must be accompanied by affidavits sworn only before executive magistrates of the complainant’s home district. This practice was introduced in 2019, an internal government order shows.

Goswami argued that this involves the risk of identity of the complainants getting revealed before the accused persons, as executive magistrates work under district magistrates and swearing of affidavits before executive magistrates means keeping a copy of the affidavit at the office of the district magistrate.

“The district magistrate’s office involves all MLAs, MPs, panchayat members and government officials in the district due to implementation of various schemes. Most of the complaints are usually against government officials and elected public representatives from the districts. The very requirement of going to the district magistrate’s office will deter many from lodging a complaint,” he said.

According to him, complainants should either be self-affirmed under applicable laws or be sworn to before specially empowered officers under the control of the Lokayukta, the district judge or the Calcutta high court. Criticising Adhikari’s decision to skip the meeting, he said, “The leader of the opposition, if he truly intended to oppose the government’s choice, should have attended the meeting and registered his objections so that they could all be on record.”

The West Bengal Lokayukta’s office has a sanctioned strength of 31 staff and incurred an expenditure of Rs 1.43 crore in 2019-20 and Rs 1.56 crore in 2020-21, the RTI response said. Since the state’s Lokayukta still does not have any website, no information about its functioning is available in the public domain.

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In most other major states in India, the Lokayukta’s office has its own website, detailing various information and statistics.

For example, the Karnataka Lokayukta’s website which shares much information, including annual reports and a daily cause list, apart from the option for lodging complaints online. The Maharashtra Lokayukta’s website offers a year-wise number of complaints received and disposed of, statement of recommendations and special reports, as well as the option for filing complaints and tracking their status online.

The Odisha Lokayukta’s website, too, offers information on case status, orders, daily cause list and annual reports. The Delhi Lokayukta, too, has made copies of orders available on its website, whereas the Andhra Pradesh Lokayukta’s website hosts the annual reports.

Among the large states, Tamil Nadu is yet to create a Lokayukta website of its own, and so is Punjab. Tamil Nadu’s Lokayukta was constituted only in 2019 and the Punjab assembly passed the Lokayukta Bill in 2020.