Lokayukta in action

Print edition : August 12, 2005

Justice Venkatachala breathes new life into the institution by taking proactive steps to enforce its mandate, but his zeal fails to evoke a matching response from the establishment.

PARVATHI MENON in Bangalore

Justice Venkatachala conducting an inquiry into a bribery charge against a government official in Bangalore.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

EITHER the public has become more vigilant, or the corrupt more brazen. The flurry of activity in the last few months in the office of the Karnataka Lokayukta in Bangalore, widely reported in the local print and electronic media, could be explained by either of these two reasons. On June 15, for example, Lokayukta officials, led by Justice N. Venkatachala, trapped a section officer in the Department of Health and Family Welfare, H. Jayaram, in the act of allegedly accepting a bribe from Ajai Ghosh, a managing trustee of the MGB Nursing College that is coming up on Mysore Road. Ghosh had applied to the Health Department for a final government order sanctioning the college, an order that had been cleared, but to hand over which the official had allegedly demanded a bribe of Rs.20,000 from Ghosh. The deal was finally settled for Rs.10,000. Ghosh filed a complaint before the Lokayukta, following which Jayaram was caught red-handed. A case under the Prevention of Corruption Act was booked against him.

On May 18, acting on a tip-off, Lokayukta officials arrested T.C. Nagaraj, a Sub-Registrar at his office in Shivajinagar, and Basavaraj, a tout, on the charge of taking a bribe of Rs.10,000 from Ikramullah Khan, a city-based lawyer. Khan alleged that Nagaraj had demanded Rs.14,000 for giving him a property document for a client. The Lokayukta team seized Rs.1.71 lakhs unaccounted cash, which the staff had allegedly collected before lunch-break, along with five envelopes containing Rs.5,000 each, which were to have been delivered to senior officials of the department as "gift vouchers", according to the Lokayukta. Deposing before the Lokayukta team, Nagaraj denied all knowledge of the transaction and denied even knowing Basavaraj.

On April 23, a Class I officer of the State government, M.N. Panali, Director of Public Instruction for Urdu and Other Minority Languages, was caught by a four-member team of Lokayukta police in the act of accepting a bribe of Rs.10,000 at his residence from a person called Vasant as part of a Rs.40,000 bribe. Venkatachala later told the media that there had been numerous complaints against the officer, but they acted on the basis of the formal complaint lodged by Vasant. They laid a trap for the official who was later arrested under the Prevention of Corruption Act and remanded to judicial custody.

For the Lokayukta to set a trap, a formal complaint must be filed before it. Acting on the complaint, the Lokayukta police then set up an elaborate trap. The notes that the complainant will pay as bribe are dipped in a chemical solution. He or she is given a tape recorder and the team then posts a couple of people in disguise at the spot. The complainant tapes the conversation between him and the bribe giver. If the suspect handles the notes he is easily caught. He is made to wash his hands in a basin of water that turns into a particular colour because of the chemical solution which the notes are dipped in.

However, the arrest that made the biggest media splash was that of M. Obeidullah Sharief, the Chairman (of the rank of a State Minister) of the State Minorities Development Corporation on March 22, for allegedly demanding and accepting a bribe of Rs.75,000 to sanction loans for 100 persons to buy autorickshaws. The Corporation sanctions a Rs.25,000 loan (that includes a subsidy of Rs.5,000) towards the purchase of autorickshaws. With a referral from the Corporation, a bank then loans each person the balance sum of Rs.90,000 towards the cost of the vehicle. In this case, a complainant alleged that the Sharief demanded Rs.10,000 from each person for releasing the amount. A Lokayukta official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Frontline: "The 100 loan awardees are very poor and simply did not have Rs.10 lakhs to pay upfront as a bribe. They negotiated for Rs.6 lakhs, and then promised to give Rs.75,000 as an initial payment. They actually had to borrow the bribe amount, and told us about it. We set a trap for Sharief and caught him." Sharief denied that he had demanded any bribe, and told the assembled media that he was set up by the "autorickshaw lobby".

These are only the most recent, and high-profile, actions taken by the Lokayukta under the tenure of the present incumbent, Justice Venkatachala, who appears to have breathed new life into the institution. The Lokayukta, an ombudsman-like authority to enforce ethics and accountability in public office, was established under the Karnataka Lokayukta Act of 1984. The Act gives the institution the authority to enforce standards and efficiency in public administration. It is empowered to investigate allegations of corruption, maladministration, favouritism and abuse of power by public servants, right up to the office of the Chief Minister.

After a rather somnolent existence of 20 years, the present Lokayukta, who took office in early 2002, galvanised the institution into one that has proactively sought to implement its mandate. Thus, while the Lokayukta office is fully within its jurisdiction and rights in carrying out the arrests it did, permission to prosecute officers found prima facie guilty of corruption must be accorded by the State government. This is not always forthcoming.

According to data with the Lokayukta, the State government has not given them permission to prosecute 36 officials involved in cases of corruption booked by it under the Prevention of Corruption Act. Between 2001 and the end of June 2005, 526 complaints were received and acted upon by the Lokayukta's office under the Prevention of Corruption Act, and 34, 613 under the Lokayukta Act.

The recent arrests by the Lokayukta, and the interviews that Justice Venkatachala subsequently gave to more than one newspaper and television channel, in which he lashed out at corruption in political life, drew angry outbursts from politicians across the political spectrum in the last session of the State Legislative Assembly. They criticised Justice Venkatachala for making public statements on corruption that they alleged tarnished all politicians with the same brush. Justice Venkatachala remains unfazed. He said that more cases of corruption were coming to light because people are becoming ever more vigilant and aware of their rights in a democracy.

A recent survey, entitled India Corruption Study 2005, conducted by Transparency International and the Centre for Media Studies, which claims to be the largest ever survey on how people perceive corruption, ranked Karnataka the fourth most corrupt State in India. The survey interviewed 14, 405 respondents in 20 states (151 cities and 306 villages) on their perceptions and experience of bribes in 11 public services. For the State, this is a dubious distinction indeed, and one that appears to have spurred Justice Venkatachala and his team of sleuths to greater action.

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