In a bid to remove the fear of future harassment over decisions taken in good faith by policy-makers but assign stricter punishment for graft, the cabinet on Wednesday approved key changes in the anti-corruption law to be placed before parliament.
Among the proposals in the Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill, 2013, is a new definition of criminal misconduct and more stringent punishment for offences, both by the giver and taker. In addition to individuals, it also seeks to bring commercial entities within its purview.
The minimum punishment is proposed to be enhanced from six months to three years and the maximum from five years to seven years.
"The seven-year imprisonment brings corruption to the heinous crime category," an official statement said after a cabinet meeting here chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The amendments also seek to make the law conform to the UN Convention against Corruption.
In the existing act legislation, the guilt of the person is presumed for an offence of taking a bribe. The bill seeks to amend this provision to only cover specific offences. It also wants that an "intention" to acquire ill-gotten assets should be proved by the prosecutors.
Earlier this week, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had said the 27-year-old anti-corruption law needed a complete re-haul as it was not only preventing an honest decision-making process, but also leaving a lot of room for undesirable interpretation.
"Does the 1988 act adequately distinguish between an act of corruption and one where honest error has been made," Jaitley asked at an event of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
"This 1988 act fails the test," he said, faulting the inference of words like corruption and gratification.
"In any economic activity, decision-making has to be quicker," he said, alluding to recent events where former bureaucrats -- some of whom enjoyed impeccable record during service -- were called in for questioning by probe agencies for decisions taken earlier, and charges filed against them.
The new bill seeks to rectify that.
"It is proposed to extend the protection of prior sanction for prosecution to public servants who cease to hold office due to retirement, resignation," an official statement said on Wednesday, following the cabinet approval.
"Further, prior sanction for inquiry and investigation shall be required from the Lokpal, or Lokayukta, as the case may be, for investigation of offences relatable to the recommendations made or decision taken by a public servant in discharge of official functions or duties."
The Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill, 2013 was introduced in the Rajya Sabha on August 19, 2013. The related parliamentary standing committee submitted its report on February 6 next year. The views of the Law Commission were also incorporated. But the Bill could not be passed.
In the new bill, proper definition of several terms has been proposed.
For example, public function is defined as one that is performed in the course of employment and done so impartially, in good faith. Improper performance is breach of this expectation -- and relevant means one that is performed in good faith, in a position of trust.
At the same time, the bill omits an existing provision where during trial, if a person makes a statement that bribe was given, it cannot be used against that person by the prosecution. This may deter bribe givers from appearing as witnesses in cases against public officials.
Other highlights of the bill:
- Powers of attachment of properties with the trial court instead of district court;
- Provisions on inducement of public servant added to contain corruption;
- Making commercial organisations issue guidelines while dealing with a public servant;
- Providing for completion of trial within two years, against eight years it takes now;
- Intentional bribe-taking by public servants treated as criminal misconduct;
- Possession of disproportionate assets as proof of bribe-taking; and
- Coverage of both monetary and non-monetary gratification.