For fair governance

Print edition : April 27, 2002

The Karnataka Lokayukta, imbued with a new vigour, seeks to offer justice in respect of complaints of maladministration and corruption.

KARNATAKA was the first State in the country to establish, through an act of the State legislature in 1983, the institution of the Lokayukta, an ombudsman-like authority to enforce ethics and accountability in public office. Set up by the Ramakrishna Hegde government in fulfilment of the Janata Party's 1983 election promise of 'value-based governance', the Karnataka Lokayukta is not merely the first of its kind in the country, it is governed by an Act that is the most comprehensive of all the existing Lokayukta Acts. The Karnataka Lokayukta Act, 1984, empowers the institution to improve standards of public administration by investigating allegations of corruption, maladministration, favouritism and abuse of power by public servants, right up to the office of the Chief Minister.

Despite the progressive legislation that underpins it and its wide-ranging powers, the Lokayukta in the last 20 years of its existence led a relatively quiet existence. In recent months, however, it appears to have been imbued with a new vigour, as reflected in the growing numbers of cases that are coming before it, and the media attention that its work is attracting. This sudden burst of activism may be reflective of a heightened public awareness of institutions that offer quick justice in respect of complaints against maladministration and corruption by public servants in the discharge of their duties. It is also in no small measure due to the sense of purpose that the present Lokayukta, Justice N. Venkatachala, has brought to the job.

The creation of the office of an ombudsman or an ombudsman-like authority has been a long-standing demand in India that individuals, groups and parties within the political spectrum have made. More powerful, however, has been the resistance from vested political interests to such a move. In 1968, the Administrative Reforms Commission, headed by Morarji Desai, in a report on the problems of the redress of citizens' grievances, recommended the appointment of a Lokpal at the Centre and Lokayuktas in the States. Since then, several draft bills for the establishment of a Lokpal have been brought forward in Parliament, but none has been passed. Several States now have Lokayuktas. "Of all the Lokayukta Acts, Karnataka's is by far the most exhaustive and has the widest coverage," said Justice Venkatachala. "Even the office of the Chief Minister can be investigated under the Act. Although under the original Act the Lokayukta could take suo motu action against the Chief Minister, this provision was amended six months after the Act was passed. Under the present provision, the Lokayukta can investigate a grievance or allegation against the office of the Chief Minister but cannot initiate action on its own."

The ambit of the Act is wide. It empowers the Lokayukta (or the Upalokayukta in respect of public servants earning salaries less than Rs.10,620 a month) to investigate actions of public servants in respect of allegations made or grievances expressed against them. An allegation can range from an affirmation that the public servant has abused his position to favour himself; was actuated in the discharge of his function by personal or corrupt motives; is guilty of corruption, favouritism, nepotism or lack of integrity; or has not acted in accordance with the norms of integrity and conduct to be followed. A claim by a person that he or she sustained hardship as a consequence of maladministration constitutes a grievance. Where the Lokayukta after an inquiry is satisfied that an allegation or complaint is substantiated, it can recommend that the public servant concerned be removed from his or her post. The 'competent authority' (the Governor, the Chief Minister or the State government, depending on the seniority of the public servant under investigation) can reject the Lokayukta's recommendation, but only with good reason. If, however, the 'competent authority' accepts the Lokayukta's recommendation, the public servant has to resign from his or her post. Under the Karnataka Lokayukta Act, the Lokayukta can directly initiate criminal prosecution against a public servant if the Lokayukta is satisfied that a criminal offence has been committed. It is also empowered to issue a warrant to authorise a police officer for a search and seizure operation against a public servant. Every public servant in Karnataka has to submit an annual statement of his or her assets and liabilities, along with those of their family members.

The comprehensive legal powers given to the Lokayukta is, however, not without restrictions. The scope of Section 11, Clause 4 of the Act is wide and could give considerable protection to public servants in special circumstances. In giving evidence, a public servant is not required to furnish information if it "might prejudice the State of Karnataka or the security or defence or international relations of India (including India's relations with the government or any other country or with any international organisation)". Similarly, a public servant need not disclose information which "might involve the disclosure of proceedings of the Cabinet of the State government or any Committee of that Cabinet." These clauses could certainly fetter the reach of the Lokayukta into the higher echelons of administration.

Justice Venkatachala, who assumed office in July 2001, has expanded the scope of his office by introducing several innovative measures. He has started the practice of a touring court, travelling to the districts and holding open court sessions in the district centres. The first round of sessions in the districts has been completed, and he is currently on a second round, touring the remaining district centres. "We have been trying to intervene in situations where the poor are affected," Justice Venkatachala told Frontline. "We are taking up complaints relating to maladministration in district government hospitals, matters relating to government land grants, government housing problems, the condition of remand homes, cases of atrocities committed by the police, improper treatment of prisoners in jails, the running of anganwadis, and so on." In his first round of visits, he heard 950 complaints from 12 districts. Of these, 690 were disposed of, and the remaining are being investigated. The Lokayukta's tour plans are announced in the districts well ahead. All heads of district government departments are required to be present at the Lokayukta's sittings so that the cases can be resolved quickly.

Justice Venkatachala has for the first time appointed Vigilance Directors to help him with his hugely increased workload. Dr. H. Sudarshan, the highly regarded Chairman of the State government's Task Force on Health and Family Welfare, has been appointed Vigilance Director in the Lokayukta in charge of Health, Education and Social Welfare. Accepting this responsibility on a token salary of one rupee, Dr. Sudarshan has already made a difference through his proactive role in cleaning up the administration in the district hospitals. He is also currently investigating a complaint filed by a Bangalore-based journalist demanding an inquiry into violations of the Transplantation of Human Organs Act, 1994, and the failure of the government-appointed bodies concerned to prevent these violations. K.V. Vasudeva Murthy has been appointed Vigilance Director to look into cases concerning the Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BMP), or the city corporation, and N. Veerabhadraiah has been appointed as Vigilance Director to look into cases relating to the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA). They have their offices on the premises of the BMP and the BDA respectively.

It is perhaps for the first time since its establishment that the Lokayukta is beginning to deploy its potential, driven largely by the commitment of the individuals who are running it. A far greater level of public awareness of its role is, however, required if it is to become a powerful political institution that can fulfil the aspirations of ordinary citizens for fair and effective governance.

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