With the appointment of P C Ghose as its chairman, and eight other members, the institution of the lokpal has finally come into existence, five years after Parliament passed the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013. The creation of this body is an important administrative reform. It fulfils an international obligation that arose when India signed the UN Convention on Corruption in 2003. Domestically, it marks the culmination of a long and convoluted history that started in 1968, and, towards the end, marked by the Anna Hazare-led 'India Against Corruption' movement that was enthusiastically supported by the middle classes.
Since the new ombudsman will be an autonomous body, it may be better placed than other existing institutions to ensure fair and prompt investigation and prosecution of corruption cases. It will also exercise jurisdiction over the prime minister, other central ministers and members of Parliament, besides officials of GoI, public sector banks and undertakings, and non-governmental organisations receiving annual foreign contributions above Rs 10 lakh.
Significantly, the new legislation provides protection to whistle-blowers. After stipulating reasonable safeguards, it also incorporates provisions for the attachment and confiscation of property acquired by corrupt means, even when prosecution is still pending. The lokpal will supervise the Central Bureau of Investigation and other investigative agencies. This may insulate CBI from governmental pressures, even as it has been supervised by another autonomous body, the Central Vigilance Commission, on technical matters something that hasn't stopped governmental interference.
The lokpal has been given independent powers as well. It can inquire into cases itself, and summon and question witnesses even before investigations are formally launched. It can issue directions to ensure that all investigations are completed within six months. An official associated with a pending investigation cannot be transferred without the lokpal's approval. These are significant reforms. But much will depend upon whether the lokpal can ensure that time limits for prompt completion of investigations and inquiries are actually adhered to. Currently, the vigilance machinery has not been able to stick to these deadlines.
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