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India: The long road from transparency to accountability
December 27, 2013, 8:58 am

Over two years ago, with people agitating in the hundreds of thousands, and a venerated elderly Indian activist on the sixteenth day of a hunger strike, the Indian Parliament passed an unprecedented “sense of the house resolution” with a message to the people.  Parliament promised “in principle” an enactment that would set up an independent anti- corruption Ombudsman (called the Lokpal) for dealing with complaints against public officials and elected representatives at all levels; a similar dispensation at the Indian state level (called the Lokayukta); and a grievance redress mechanism to deal with complaints of non- delivery of all basic services, and ensure action on violations of citizens charters.

India ranks 94th among 177 nations in the global corruption index released by the Transparency International recently [AP Images]

India ranks 94th among 177 nations in the global corruption index released by the Transparency International recently [AP Images]

On December 18th 2013, India’s Parliament finally, passed the Lokpal Act. The Lokpal legislation has been brought to the Indian Parliament eight times over the last forty five years, only to lapse due to some form of resistance. Given the recent emotive and amplified debate around corruption, obvious questions are being asked: Will this law end graft; will it change the face of India; will it enable people to demand accountability from a political and bureaucratic system notorious for corruption and the arbitrary exercise of power?

Divided response

Those agitating for the Bill for the last three years have a divided opinion: Anna Hazare, who was the symbol of the struggle and movement, ended another hunger strike on the 18th of December, by thanking all parties in Parliament for passing the Bill, while expressing qualified hope that it would reduce corruption by 40%-50%. His former colleagues who have now formed a political party and stormed to power as a minority government in the provincial government of Delhi, dismissed the enactment as a ‘joke’ terming the Bill just passed as a “Jokepal”.  Barring one political party in Parliament, which described it as draconian, the enactment came about as a result of a rare political consensus, with parties across the spectrum voting for the law. Other groups like the National Campaign for Peoples Right to Information, have welcomed its passage but emphasised that it is not enough.

File photo of India's anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare [Getty Images]

File photo of India’s anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare [Getty Images]

The enactment is a significant step forward, with many firsts: All officials and elected representatives at the Union Level, will be under its purview, including the Prime Minister of India. The sanction for investigation, and prosecution of public officials will no longer have to be obtained from the political executive. The eight member-lokpal will be selected by the most bi partisan selection committee set up so far in India. For matters it takes up, the Lokpal will have joint control over the investigation agency (the high profile Central Bureau of Investigation), and will exercise supervisory control over the investigations it orders. It will have its own preliminary enquiry wing, supervisory control over a new directorate of prosecution, its own budget, and will have time limits for completing investigation and prosecution.

Citizens need to monitor the watchdog

There are many shortcomings as well. It still has to investigate as per the provisions of a fairly weak and limited “Prevention of Corruption Act 1988”. Having to share the investigation agency with the Union Government is going to cause many complications. It is likely to be inundated with more complaints and cases than it can handle, and is therefore unlikely to be able to meet the time limits set by law. The mechanism to deal with complaints against the six million lower level officials is cumbersome and impractical. There are stiff fines for frivolous complaints. Given the very high levels of expectation that have been built up around this legislation, and the complexities of the investigation of corruption complaints, there is likely to be a high degree of frustration, dissatisfaction, and cynicism building up if this is the only remedy offered to citizens.

It is in this context that the “sense of the house resolution”, remains significant, and the Bill falls short on two significant counts. Most ordinary Indians affected by corruption have to deal with State or provincial Governments. The Lokpal Act 2013 only applies to India’s Central Government employees and officials.  States are required to pass the Lokayukta Acts within a year, and it is not necessary that they follow the same provisions. It means that citizens have to watch over each state legislature to fight for strong Lokayukta laws.

India still awaits the whistleblower’s protection bill

More significant is the void that exists in the absence of the passage of a separate legislature, the Grievance Redress (GR Bill) and Whistleblower Protection Bills (WBP Bill). The G R Bill can help citizens enforce accountability in day-to-day governance. Built on the architecture of India’s celebrated Right to Information law, it makes supervisory authorities personally responsible for the non- disposal of complaints within a fixed time frame. The GR Bill introduces key elements of public participation, like proactive disclosure, citizen facilitation, and collective platforms for the redress of grievances. The GR Bill is listed for discussion and passage in the lower house of Parliament, and has been widely lauded by peoples organisations and experts for potentially creating a strong citizen centric accountability framework. It has received the support of parties across the spectrum, but has ironically not yet been passed.

The Whistle Blower  Protection Bill is also listed for passage in Parliament. Over time, its implementation in India would radically expand the notion of the whistle blower as seen today. The Indian RTI Act has made every citizen a potential whistle blower. By accessing crucial information earlier available only to the insider, and putting it in the public domain the crusading citizen can play a role similar to a conscientious insider. The degree to which the RTI user has threatened vested interests becomes obvious from the killing of over 40 RTI users in India since 2007. Protection of the whistle blower in India is not just to protect employment and job security, but of life itself. It is therefore obvious that if citizens are to be encouraged and supported in making complaints even related to grand corruption, they will have to be protected.

India’s Right to Information: A model success    

But most importantly, how can these laws really help change things for the better? The success of the RTI movement should provide some answers.

The Right to Information Act 2005 is now acknowledged to be a transformatory legislation by vesting power with the people.  Its basic architecture, has ensured that the ordinary Indian citizen has managed to use it to overcome resistant centres of power, to ensure implementation. It empowered the ordinary citizen to initiate and pursue the process of dismantling illegitimate concentrations of power. In fact, it is difficult to imagine the growth of the popular anti-corruption movement without the winds of transparency that have swept across a landscape of secrecy and opaqueness in governance in India. It has strengthened democracy. As the right to information gave people proof of corruption and arbitrary use of power, they began to demand accountability, from a system completely out of tune with this new dynamic of peoples’ power.

Movements and their leaders need to draw lessons from the right to information movement. To change a culture and overcome powerful vested interests, the sustained pressure and active participation of the ordinary citizen is imperative. This will only happen through a law when the people shape it and put it to use. Straightforward articulation, and common sense exists in ample measure amongst those struggling against arbitrary power, if only we are willing to listen:

Talking of what a citizen based accountability legislation should contain, a group of young people fighting atrocities against India’s oppressed “lower castes” in Bhilwara in the western Indian state of Rajasthan succinctly outlined five essential provisions required in such a law to make it truly citizen centric. They said the law should provide for (1) “ jankari” (information) and knowledge about all entitlements; (2) “sunwai”  (a hearing) with a written acknowledgement ;  (3)“karyawahi” (action) within a specified time frame; (4)“bhagidari”  (participation) at every stage of the process; and finally (5)“suraksha“  (protection)for the complainant, because the complainant is often the first one to be attacked.

India needs to keep its ear to the ground, learn these lessons, and enact all the pending people centric accountability legislation. People’s movements need to understand that it would be folly to promise that a law will solve everything and that the citizen can become a passive recipient of “good governance”. And political parties need to understand that they are facing a crisis of relevance when they are seen to be resisting the activism and wisdom of ordinary people.


The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.