Jan Lokpal Bill: More than what meets the eye

Anna Hazare’s fast unto death has entered its third day, and I am still conflicted about whether the Jan Lokpal Bill (in support of which Hazare has launched his fast) will actually address the problem of rampant corruption in India.

Image source: indiatogether.org

To be clear, the Lokpal Bill (Ombudsman Bill) proposed by the lawmakers in India as a mechanism to fight corruption is a sham and is designed to encourage, rather than discourage corruption. In the lawmaker’s version of the Lokpal bill, the office of the ombudsperson is appointed by the government (at its own pleasure) and the office will serve only in an advisory capacity with no powers to actually pursue corruption charges in court. Furthermore, the jurisdiction of the office will be limited to politicians and not the civil servant and other officers who are responsible for running the government machinery; of course, the office will not have the authority to investigate the Prime Minister. Also, while the office of the ombudsperson do not have the authority to actually press charges against the politicians they deem corrupt, they do have the authority to penalize the citizens who make the corruption accusation (in the event that the office finds their target of investigation innocent). [source: India Against Corruption]

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this bill is a toothless tiger which will only foster the moral bankruptcy and the rampant corruption that is the Indian government.

Now, we come to the Jan Lokpal bill that is being proposed by the India Against Corruption lobby. The Jan Lokpal bill proposes that the office of the ombudsperson be an independent institution much like the supreme court or the election commission. It is to be appointed by a selection committee consisting of judges, ‘meritorious’ citizens who have won awards like the Nobel prize, Magsasay award, the Election Commission, Auditor General, and others. The bill proposes that central vigilance commission (which investigates corruption by the civil servants and government offices and departments) and the division of the Central Bureau of Investigation be folded into the office of the ombudsperson, so that there is a single office that investigates the charges of corruption in all branches and levels of the government. The bill also proposes that the office be an investigatory body with authority for law enforcement which allows the office to pursue criminal charges against the individuals who the office finds guilty. The bill also sets a time limit of one year to complete the investigation and one year for filing charges against the accused if sufficient evidence is available. The bill also have provisions for whistle blower protection, and a provision to recover the money or value lost by the government from the individual who was found guilty of corruption (which resulted in the aforementioned loss). [source: India Against Corruption]

On the face of it, the Jan Lokpal bill looks like a great idea, but reflecting on it, I am disturbed by the assumptions made in the bill. My objections are a little different from the kind I have seen online. For example, here are objections by [Rohan], [Offstumped], and [Business Standard]. I have both practical and philosophical objections. I present one of each.

On a practical level, the bill says little to address the issue of “who watches the watchman”. How do you ensure that the integrity of the ombudsperson’s office is not compromised, and if it is compromised, then how do you recognize and then fix it? Given the level of corruption in India, this is a real concern. Until this issue is addressed sufficiently, I am not too comfortable throwing my support behind it.

On a philosophical level, I have deeper concerns. The office proposed by the Jan Lokpal bill is a meritocratic institution which monitors a the government, a democratic institution. To put it differently, the bill makes a democratic institution accountable not to the people who voted, but to a meritocratic institution which can potentially exert it’s influence on the outcomes of the governance. The risk here is that such a meritocratic institution could develop the attitude of “people don’t know what they want, but we know what’s good for the people”, and use it’s authority to enforce an agenda that might not be the will of the people.

While I grant you that the current “democracy” in the India is really plutocracy in disguise, simply making it answerable to a meritocracy cannot be a solution to the problem at hand.

IMHO, the solution to this problem of corruption can only come from democracy itself. Not because democracy is somehow sacred, but because the institution that is corrupt is supposed to be democratic in the first place. Initiatives like “I Paid A Bribe” is a great example of such efforts. Another example of involving the citizenry was proposed by India’s chief economic advisor Kaushik Babu in which he proposed decriminalizing bribe giving and keep bribe-taking a crime. This will provide an incentive for the bribe giver to not conceal the fact that the bribe was given and even co-operate to ensure that the bribe taker is caught.
I wish I had something more constructive to offer, but unfortunately I don’t.

UPDATE: Realitycheck provides credible objections to the Jan Lokpal bill..

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