Friday, December 30, 2011

hang the Lokpal !

So its all over! The Rajya Sabha has been adjourned sine die, and the Government, despite being repeatedly asked,  has chosen not to disclose to the Parliament what it plans to do next to institutionalise a strong and effective Lokpal. That the Lokpal bill as passed by the Lok Sabha was riddled with inconsistencies and weaknesses is now common knowledge. That the entire Opposition was united in demanding certain amendments to the bill so as to provide for an effective Lokpal is also known. That the government chose to defend the bill till, literally, the twelfth hour was seen and heard by all. What next? We have been told that the government needs to "examine" the numerous amendments moved by Members of the Rajya Sabha. How long the examination will take, whether the bill will be taken up two months from now in the Budget session etc etc -----these are questions to which, as citizens, we will be given no immediate answers. We, the people, are the "ruled" and would do well to hold our peace till the "rulers" decide to speak ----that message came loud and clear today.

 We may shout ourselves hoarse that we have had enough of the petty and not-so-petty corruption that is sapping the nation's life blood. We may remind the government again and again and again that we have waited long enough for a strong, effective anti-corruption Ombudsman. We may even draft them a model bill. Its not enough -----not because the government or our elected representatives are engaged in other more pressing, nation building activity, but because they just don't care. The status quo suits the "rulers". Why should they change it until and unless they are left with no choice but to do it ? This attitude is best demonstrated by the fact that among the few amendments to the Lokpal bill that the Lok Sabha passed, the most significant was the deletion of Section 24 which required the Parliament to take action against MPs against whom the Lokpal had instituted criminal proceedings under the Prevention of Corruption Act !

They will simply make feeble attempts to enact a "suitable" law ----a law that suits them because it sets up a Lokpal that acts at their  bidding, or is so hamstrung by  convoluted procedures that it does not act at all. Even such a Lokpal could prove unsettling or inconvenient, so only a pretense of action will be made, no outcomes will actually be achieved. 

There was a lot of talk today about a "weak" Lokpal being better than no Lokpal at all, about how the institution could be strengthened through amendments in a "phased" manner. I find the logic simply galling, when seen in the context of the fact that we have been trying to give ourselves a Lokpal for several decades, there are numerous reports and studies already available, as also a model law and several alternative formulations drafted by civil society. When we know what the constituents of a strong, effective Lokpal must be, when even the draft formulations of the structures and procedures that achieve that objective are available, how can a "weak" Lokpal be possibly justified?

The truth is that the attitude of the "rulers" is : hang the Lokpal ! It is for us, the people of India, to not give up the battle and fight to win the war.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Lokpal bill ---section 24 conundrum

The Times Of India carries today a front page headline "Netas may unite against Section 24 of Lokpal bill".

What does Section 24 of the Lokpal bill say? It provides for the action to be taken by the Lokpal and the Parliament in case the CBI (or any other agency entrusted with the investigation) finds , upon conclusion of an investigation ,that an offence has been committed by the Prime Minister or a Minister or a Member of Parliament under the Prevention of Corruption Act. The Lokpal may file a case in the Special Court, and will  also  send a copy of the Investigation Report along with its findings to the Parliament which will inform the Lokpal, within 90 days, of the action taken. 

Therein lies the rub ! Till the Special Court decides the matter, how can the Parliament take any action, ask the affronted netas. The Representation of the People Act provides for disqualification of our MPs only when they have been convicted of a serious offence.In fact, no action can be taken against an MP even if he has been convicted of a serious offence until his appeal against such an order of conviction has been heard and decided by the Supreme Court. This could take several years, during which time he continues to enjoy the power, privileges and perquisites of being an MP/Minister.And here comes the Lokpal bill, with a requirement that action be taken by the Parliament against an MP/Minister even before he has been convicted of an offence under the Prevention of Corruption Act.

The government could point out that the provisions of the Lokpal bill over ride any provisions of any law that are inconsistent with the Bill. However, if the government is truly in earnest about action being taken against MPs and Ministers even before the Special Court has decided the corruption case filed by the Lokpal, then it must also introduce a Bill to amend the Representation of People Act. We have large numbers of MPs with criminal antecedents and criminal cases pending against them. The cases linger in the courts for decades, and even when the court convicts an MP or Minister, several more years pass while he exhausts all the appeal remedies that the law provides him. Is it not proper that the Representation of People Act be amended to require that an MP be disqualified at the stage of framing of charges against him in the criminal court? In August this year, newspapers did carry news items about such a proposal being considered by the government. And then, no more was heard about the proposed amendment ----vested interests at work, no doubt !

It is but obvious that MPs and Ministers will resist any provision of the law that changes the status quo from which they so greatly benefit. We must make certain, by telling our MPs in unambiguous terms that they cannot have their cake and eat it too, that along with a powerful and effective Lokpal legislation, the law is amended to provide for the disqualification of MPs and Ministers once charges have been framed against them in a criminal court vis a vis a serious offence.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Confusion heaped upon confusion

Have you read the Lokpal Bill, 2011 ? It sets out such a tedious, cumbersome procedure that one would think the intention is to make certain that a complaint of corruption against a public servant gets lost in the maze ! Here's a step-by-step guide :

If there is a complaint of corruption against a public servant, the Lokpal will first decide whether to proceed in the matter or close it.That's step number one.

If it decides to proceed in the matter, it will order a preliminary inquiry to decide whether there exists a prima facie case to proceed in the matter.That's step number two. What is the difference between the first step and the second? Both require the Lokpal to "decide" whether to "proceed" in the matter. I too am trying to figure that out.

If the complaint is against a government servant (group A, B, C and D), the Lokpal will refer the matter  to the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) which will carry out the preliminary inquiry.The preliminary inquiry is to be concluded in 90 days( 3 months), and this period may be extended by another 90 days.

For all other public servants, the preliminary inquiry will be conducted by the Lokpal's Inquiry Wing.

Or by the CBI.
Or by any other agency.
Enough confusion , right ?

After making its preliminary inquiry, the CVC will submit its report to the Lokpal, but only for Group A and B government servants. That's step number three.

What happens to the report of the CVC's preliminary inquiry in respect of Group C and D government servants? On these reports, action will be taken by the CVC as per the CVC Act. 

As for the preliminary inquiry in respect of public servants other than government servants, the Lokpal's Inquiry Wing, or the CBI, or any other agency, will complete the inquiry within 60 days and submit its report to the Lokpal. Sixty days? Hadn't we just said preliminary inquiry to be concluded within 90 days? Obviously, the government is yet to make up its mind whether the preliminary inquiry is to be concluded within 60 days or 90 + 90 (180) days.

We are now at step four of the process. The Lokpal will consider the preliminary inquiry report, hear the public servant, and decide either to close the matter, or order disciplinary action against the public servant, or order an investigation into the matter. Who will take the disciplinary action against the public servant? The CVC. There's no time limit prescribed, by the way, for completion of action by the CVC in the cases referred to it for taking disciplinary action.

Who will carry out the investigation? The CBI or any other agency.Once the investigation has been concluded, the investigation report will be considered by the Lokpal. This brings us to step five of the process.It may decide to close the matter, or file a complaint in the Special Court, or initiate departmental proceedings against the public servant.

The complaint or the closure report will be filed in the Special Court by the Lokpal's Prosecution Wing, but disciplinary proceedings will be initiated by the "competent authority", not the Lokpal.

Interestingly, while the preliminary inquiry, the investigation and the disciplinary proceedings will be carried out by the CVC and the CBI, there is no provision in the Lokpal bill to ensure the autonomy of these organisations. So, as is the case now, both the CVC and the CBI will remain vulnerable to extraneous influences, including political pressure.

From step one to step six, do you see much of a role for the Lokpal? Is it any wonder that anti - corruption activists have described the Lokpal, as envisaged in the Lokpal bill, as a mere post office ? 

Since no measure for ensuring the autonomy of the CBI and the CVC has been proposed, the "post office" Lokpal will simply add another layer to the existing, dysfunctional anti-corruption machinery. Was this the outcome for which millions of people extended support to Anna Hazare and his team ? Is this the best the government could do after several rounds of discussions with Team Anna, examination by the Standing Committe, etc etc ?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

An undemocratic people !

An interesting issue was being heatedly debated on TV channels yesterday. If the Parliament passes a Lokpal bill that provides only for a weak and ineffective Lokpal, do the people have the right to protest? Surprisingly, most participants, whether they be from the political arena or the media,  forcefully asserted that our democratic set up will be under mined if the supremacy of the Parliament vis a vis law making is questioned by people's movements like the Anna Hazare-led India Against Corruption and the laws/proposed laws protested against.

The argument is as follows: our Constitution vests the power to make laws in the Parliament. Ordinary people elect their representatives to the Parliament, and having once cast their vote for X, they should then  repose complete faith in the wisdom, experience, and bona fide of X, trusting him to make sure that the laws that the Parliament makes are the ones that serve best the people's interests.

They should not question his actions even when they smack of indifference to  what is best for the people in the people's own wisdom. He's becomes wiser than them, you see, once he's been elected by the very people whose wisdom  becomes suspect once they have cast their vote. Even if they cry themselves hoarse that what they want is not what he and other august Parliamentarians are planning to enact as law, they will not be heard. They"ll be told instead, in the supercilious tones that the clever use for those who are simple, that they must let Parliament do its job, that the Parliament knows best.

What IS the Parliament's job? Is it to enact laws that promote the welfare of the people , or is to enact laws that the Parliamentarians THINK achieve that objective? If it is the former, and indeed it is, then it is the people's right to articulate what best promotes their welfare. If what  people say they want  is at odds with what the elected representatives think is good for the people, then  in a system which is by the people, of the people, and FOR the people, it is the people's view which should prevail.How then can it be unconstitutional for the people to protest against a proposed law that they do not perceive as serving its stated purpose, and to articulate what they think its contours should be?

Are they to remain silent simply because they cast their vote and elected to the Parliament men and women who appear, as a class, to be  interested only in perpetuating a status quo that is hurting ordinary men and women ? Can they only speak when its time to cast their vote again? The wise men and women who drafted our Constitution would have declared that to be a travesty of the spirit of the Constitution, which states clearly, unambiguously, and emphatically that the people are the source of all sovereign power that is exercised in their name. They can speak, demand, and protest as and when the Parliament or any other organ of the government is perceived to be acting against their interest.

The reason why so many elected representatives, media personalities, intellectuals and academics are reacting so strongly to the people's protest against a weak Lokpal, and going to the extent of describing it as unconstitutional, is that all these years, they have arrogated to themselves all the wisdom of 1.2 billion people. It is as if they, and they alone, know what is best for the "people", as if they are in a distinct and superior and select class. So now when the "people" speak, they are aghast. The reaction is no different from that of the ruler who'd look askance at the ruled asking him questions. We, the people, remain the "ruled", notwithstanding our having won independence from the British decades ago, and the "rulers" remain, notwithstanding the departure of the British!!

In the history of our nation, we are at a cross roads. Either we let ourselves be "ruled" or we decide what is good for us, we decide what we want, we make ourselves heard whether by casting our votes or in a myriad other ways.

We, the people, are the democracy -----how can we be accused of being undemocratic?  So, speak up !!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Lending a helping hand

Have you heard of MILAAP ( ? It's an online platform that enables you to lend to India's working poor. It’s a loan that you extend, a helping hand, not a donation. I wasn't very certain when I made my first loan a few months ago that it'd be returned, so the mail from MILAAP two months later that the first repayment installment by the borrower had been credited to my account brought a smile to my face.The second installment was paid the next month, and I'm now exceedingly confident that the whole amount will be re paid as scheduled. 

The borrower is Veena Prakash, a 28-year old from Byrathi, Karnataka, earning her living as a tailor. She wanted to expand her business making bags, cushions, mats and boxes, and needed Rs 50,000 to invest in machinery which would help her cut down costs by 5%, increase revenue by 8%, and enable her to employ fifteen people, so that the loan wouldn't mean a better life for Veena’s family alone; she would be helping families of fifteen others.

There was Partner involvement from Indus Tree Crafts Foundation, which is a not-for-profit social business that connects artisans and agricultural workers with a niche urban market. I have been a satisfied consumer of Indus Tree products so when I saw that they are Veena's partner, my level of comfort with the idea of making a loan to a completely unknown person increased.

So I and another lender extended a loan to Veena which she will re pay in twenty four months ----the first two installments have already been credited into my MILAAP account, and I can either redeem this credit or re lend to another borrower. Of course, I will re lend this amount because that option is compelling in the simplicity of its logic -----if I keep the entire amount that I originally lent to Veena in circulation, I can help many more Veenas who are looking not for charity but a hand up.

My choice this time is Asma Mistri, a 29 year-old mother living in Bantra village in West Bengal. She is an artisan who earns her living doing zari embroidery on fabric. Her family has no access to electricity, which means they rely on kerosene lamps ,often paying upto thrice the actual price of kerosene. She hopes to install a solar energy system at home with a loan of Rs 10,000 to overcome these problems.

This is how MILAAP works.

Milaap partners with established organizations that have a strong presence at the grass roots and a deep understanding of the 150 million Indian households with no access to water, sanitation, healthcare, education and energy. Milaap and its field partners design customized loan programs and Milaap then shares requirements, backgrounds and photos of all borrowers. The online listing of borrower profiles enables the lender to select the cause and the borrower of his choice and give a loan of minimum USD 50 or Rs 1000. 

Every month, Milaap sends the total loan collected to its various field partners who disburse the loans. Throughout the loan cycle, the field partners regularly monitor the progress of the borrowers and collect repayments from the borrowers. Milaap makes monthly deposits of the repaid loan instalments into the lender's Milaap account. At the end of the loan cycle, the lender can choose to withdraw the repaid loan amount or decide to relend it to another borrower on Milaap. Through re-lending, a small loan goes a long way and gathers impact.

Its so much better than a one time donation, isn't it? Of course, charitable donations have their place, but if the working poor of India can be empowered to become completely self dependent and capable of living their lives with dignity, with access to clean drinking water, sanitation, education and medical care, wouldn't that be so much better?  Can we, the privileged middle class, who have every need taken care of, and still have enough money to splurge on movies,music, books, vacations, gourmet food, luxury brands etc etc not pledge to extend our less fortunate brethren a helping hand ? 

All of us can, notwithstanding inflation and a thousand competing demands,  budget for small loans that go a long way. Lets all do it ! I hope to meet you all on MILAAP !!