At its peak in 2011, the Karnataka Lokayukta was the institution that had blown the lid off a massive iron-ore mining scam in the state and unseated a chief minister. But four years later, the anti-corruption ombudsman was at its lowest ebb, battling allegations of extortion by the then Lokayukta’s son, till its powers were eventually taken away by the newly set up Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB).
Now, with the Karnataka High Court, on August 11, striking down that controversial attempt to render the Lokayukta and Upa-Lokayukta ”paper tigers without any teeth and claws“, there’s an opportunity to revive the institution. The HC ruling came on a bunch of public interest litigations (PILs) challenging the creation of the ACB in 2016. The court has abolished the ACB and restored the Karnataka Lokayukta’s original powers to investigate corruption cases.
There’s a long history of how things came to this point. The Lokayukta Act was enacted in Karnataka in 1984 by a Janata Party government, which had promised to create the ombudsman in its election manifesto. Subsequently, the Lokayukta institution was set up in January 1986.
It was only 2001 onwards, when Justice N. Venkatachala became the Lokayukta, that the ombudsman transformed itself into an anti-corruption crusader. He was succeeded by Justice N. Santosh Hegde in 2006—Hegde’s five-year tenure saw the institution turn into a model for the entire country, culminating in the mining report in 2011 that rocked Karnataka.
The low point came in 2015 with an extortion allegation against the son of the then sitting Lokayukta, who had to step down. The Siddaramaiah-led Congress government of the time then created the ACB, inviting PILs against the move.
The HC has ruled that the government was not justified in constituting the ACB via an executive government order when the Karnataka Lokayukta Act, 1984, was in existence for tackling corruption. The court has restored the earlier government orders designating the offices of the Lokayukta police wing as police stations while ordering that all inquiries, investigations and other disciplinary proceedings pending before the ACB be transferred to the Lokayukta. “It is most unfortunate that even 75 years after Independence, no political party is willing or daring enough to allow an independent authority like the Lokayukta to discharge its duties in a transparent manner in the interest of the general public at large,” the high court observed.
Over the years, the Karnataka Lokayukta had conducted criminal cases against 67 MLAs, MPs, ministers and other elected representatives besides 36 IAS and IPS officers. As the court observed, the ACB, in contrast, had ”not registered any criminal cases against ministers, MPs, MLAs or MLCs, but only registered a few cases against some authorities and conducted raids”.
“I’ve seen what the Lokayukta can do,” says former Lokayukta Santosh Hegde, welcoming the HC order. Creating the ACB, which was like any other police organisation answerable to the home minister and chief minister, only shifted the situation to how it was prior to 1986 (when the Lokayukta was formed), he says. “There was an effort to denude the powers of the Lokayukta because they (government) didn’t have the courage to abolish it. So, they wanted people to get fed up with a non-functioning Lokayukta and not react even if it was stripped of its powers. Even at that stage, the people of Karnataka had opposed this,” said Hegde.
The mining report, says Hegde, had named three CMs of three different political parties. Successive governments, however, didn’t implement the report, he points out.
Apart from restoring its power of investigation, Hegde suggests a few steps to strengthen the Lokayukta. Firstly, he points to the requirement for sanction to prosecute public servants, under the Criminal Procedure Code, which has been a stumbling block on most occasions. “The sanction power, at least with regard to anti-corruption investigations, should be taken away and left to the court to decide.” Secondly, the Lokayukta should have a say on officers sent on deputation to the ombudsman. “Lastly, it should be provided all necessary infrastructure being extended to other investigating agencies,” says Hegde. These measures, he says, will help put the institution back on a strong footing.
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