South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

NEW DELHI: The government prepared on Thursday to introduce an anti-corruption bill in parliament, which activists have panned for exempting the prime minister from the scrutiny of a powerful new ombudsman.

The much-hyped ” Lokpal Bill” would allow citizens to approach a newly-created anti-corruption watchdog with complaints about officials, including federal ministers and senior bureaucrats who are shielded under India’s current laws.

The ombudsman will be picked from the highest levels of the judiciary and supported by 10 other officials who would be from the judiciary or people of “impeccable integrity”.

The scheduled version of the bill has been strongly criticised by civil society activists, who were allowed to participate in the drafting process but complained that their views were marginalised.

In particular, they attacked the decision to remove sitting prime ministers and the higher judiciary from the ombudsman’s purview.

The conduct of MPs inside parliament is also exempt.

India has a dismal record of bringing corrupt senior public officials to justice.

In six decades only one senior politician, Rao Shiv Bahadur Singh, has been convicted of graft and served a jail term – for taking a bribe of 25,000 rupees in 1949.

Current laws require the government’s approval before any sitting bureaucrat or minister can be prosecuted.

Civil society efforts to strengthen the bill were spearheaded by a veteran Indian activist, Anna Hazare, who won concessions from the government in April with a 98-hour hunger strike that gained widespread national support.

Arguing that the final draft of the bill reveals the government’s “empty promises”, Hazare, 78, has urged all MPs to reject the legislation and threatened a new fast.

Hunger strikes, a traditional Indian protest, have become a focus of resentment over the corruption that plagues all levels of life in India, from massive government contracts to small daily bribes.