No need to lose sleep over Lokpal. We shall overcome through RTI!

My confidence in the existing parliamentary and judicial process has been shaken badly by the recent events in the campaign against corruption

That the government had to succumb—after innumerable flip-flops-to the common citizenry, led by a small battle-scarred fauzi, who hails from Ralegan Siddhi in rural Maharashtra, speaks volumes about the aam admi's frustration and anger over the corruption and arrogance he suffers. It may be the hard-earned money he is compelled to shell out to obtain a birth or a death certificate, a domicile proof, ration card, electric connection, driving licence or passport. Or in the villages it may be the 7/12 extract of the land record, or a change of land use, sanction for a well. The list is endless. It will not be too long before millions of tired middle-class Indians hit the streets once again, seeking a change for the better, with some concrete solutions to end bribery, stop rising prices and injustice.

The Indian people have tasted success in their first major fight. The young and the old, students and workers, flat owners or shanty dwellers, they came out in thousands. Not just the men, even women and children; announced their struggle at the Marina in Chennai, Bengaluru's Freedom Park, on Mumbai's Azad Maidan, even at schools and on street corners in towns and villages, in response to the call from the Ram Lila.

The people have come to realize that it is well within their rights to take on the hitherto uncontrolled autocracy of the executive at the Centre and in the states—the netas and babus from parliament, to the state legislatures, municipalities and panchayats, perhaps even sections of the judiciary and the media which can be manipulated.

No, the Lokpal is not a magic wand that will put an end to corruption and corrupt practices overnight. There is a far more effective Bhram Astra or Rambaan that came into existence in 2005, the Right To Information Act (RTI). This useful tool is an effective and potent weapon that has worked wonders in pulling out that skeletons of corruption out of the cupboard-the 2G call, the Common Wealth shame, or Adarsh disgrace.
Today, the common citizen who seeks information, does not have to hire a legal luminary or expert to help him get it. Focused, crisp applications can receive appropriate responses within 30 days. But an applicant choosing to sleep over the information thus secured can make it a wasteful exercise. It is imperative that the information available is utilised to pursue the matter to the source; this is the first step in the fight against corruption.

The citizen's battle against corruption begins from a simple RTI query

Let me explain the reasons for my belief in the simple RTI rather than the Lokpal, as my faith in the existing parliamentary, governmental and judicial process has been shaken considerably recently.

The Lokpal bill has seen eight avatars. It was first introduced in the Lok Sabha by the government of Indira Gandhi on 7 May 1968 and passed on 20 August 1969, but before it could be ratified by the Rajya Sabha, the Congress Party split and this resulted in the dissolution of parliament. Subsequently, the bill was introduced by the Congress four times and the Bharatiya Janata Party twice. All the governments that proposed the bill seemed to have been jinxed and collapsed before completing their terms.

What I cannot understand is why the government and parliament in their wisdom, did not consider bringing the bill before the Rajya Sabha, which is a permanent body that never lapses or expires, as its members change periodically.  And now Rahul Gandhi, in an out-of-turn Zero Hour intervention is calling to convert the Lokpal into a constitutional authority, which will be an even more lengthy process that will require the concurrence and two-thirds sanction of a score of state assemblies that is nothing short of shooting the bill down yet again.

Post Anna Hazare's hunger protest, for the first time in parliamentary history, the government was forced to set up a Joint Lokpal Drafting Committee constituted of some high-profile cabinet ministers and down-to-earth members of civil society. There are provisions to fasttrack the process to enact the Lokpal Act, even bypassing the parliamentary standing committee. One of these is to convene a joint session of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, to allow members to debate the proposal in threadbare without the enforcement of party whip.

There will be enough time in the Winter Session this year. But it must also be debated in public and objections and suggestions must be sought from the people at large. In September last year, parliament apparently rushed through 17 bills in a few minutes, including an amendment to dilute the Prevention of Corruption Act!  Come what may, the Lokpal Bill must be enacted into law this Winter Session and a Lokpal appointed to office by 26th January 2012. No two opinions!  

The executive, that is the government, is next. Today, the hitherto respected prime minister is himself under a cloud of distrust for continuing to lead a bunch of ministers, some of whom are not only corrupt, but have even accused him of corruption. And still we read about the declaration of assets by some cabinet members which must be taken with a bucket of salt. Why does a former Maharashtra chief minister and now union minister not figure in the list of people disclosing their wealth? And should not the people know exactly how much, if any, income-tax each minister is actually paying?  Some years ago there was the case of a very senior cabinet minister (who aspired to become prime minister) conveniently forgetting to pay taxes for ten long years. Unfortunately there was not RTI Act then to help fish out the information.

The stock replies from the prime minister these days is that a lot of the mess we are witnessing is due to the 'compulsions of coalition dharma', obviously implying that allies like the National Conference, Nationalist Congress Party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Trinamool Congress are holding him to ransom, or that there is 'no magic wand' to deal with corruption and to bring back black money, both response devoid of logic and lacking in conviction. It is a sad statement of affairs that he has not been able to step in even mildly to bring any debate to an honest and meaningful conclusion. The latest is the collapse of the sports bill criticized by heavyweights with conflicting interests.

It may be relevant to point out that Dr Manmohan Singh is perhaps the only unelected prime minister (he is a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha from Assam) and that he chose not to cast his vote in a general election and instead set off on a visit to China on the day of the Assam assembly elections. So much for respect for the democratic process from the head of the government.

The prime minister is increasingly seen to be presiding over a motley group of ambitious, arrogant, unscrupulous ministers in his union cabinet. He chose to ignore the warning by the then sports minister on the Commonwealth Games, and is today posturing about applications to Swiss bankers to retrieve black money stashed there. The United States has managed to get the Swiss to disclose the names of 4,550 individuals and foundations; the United Kingdom, France and Germany have also struck deals with the Swiss authorities to tax their citizens who might park money there, while our government is still dilly-dallying on the extradition of a 26/11 accused from the US.

Now, by allowing his ministers to defend the indefensible, through verbal gymnastics or the use of dirty tricks like the threat of a CBI inquiry or parliamentary privileges, the prime minister has forfeited the confidence of the nation, and is largely seen as a weak leader who is not capable of dealing with some equally serious situations like the rise in food prices; a far cry from the earlier image of an outstanding economist, a man of integrity, not given to verbosity, amiable  and free of arrogance.

It is time to shout the warning by Oliver Cromwell, from 20th April 1653 at the Rump Parliament: "You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately. Depart and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go."  It is time for UPA2 to seek the peoples' vote of confidence through a mid-term election, at the earliest.

(The writer is a Mumbai-based chartered accountant and activist.)

Ajay Chaudhry
1 decade ago
All the genuine anti-corruption crusaders should take the following pledge to set an example for others to follow: 1. I will not give and take bribes to further my interests 2. Will pay all taxes and duties honestly 3. will declare my black money and hidden assets & 4. will offer my past tax returns for compulsary scrutiny.

Its very easy to criticize Govt./Govt. servants but it needs real guts to start from self. Let Anna make this pledge compulsary for his followers; u will need Candle to find even few of them. All filmstars, businessmen, traders, Doctors, jewellers, lawyers, CAs would disappear in no time. Even u mention this in ur future articles and c the response. V r hypocrats of the highest order.Always findng faults in others, System etc etc but wont change a bit, ourselves.
Ajay Chaudhry
1 decade ago
A well written commentry on the present day, on going fight against corruption.Thank you Mr.Kini.
Rajan alexander
1 decade ago
Why Ford Foundation's Footprint will continue to haunt the Anna Team

Ford Foundation pumped in nearly $28 million or on average of $ 7 million per year to over 90 organizations within the country during the period 2007-2011. Average ticket size of these grants was $ 304,677 or around Rs 1.4 crores per grantee.

NGO authority flows from public perception that NGOs are legitimate—that they somehow do represent the muffled masses, that their motives are good, and that they sacrifice their own comfort to help others. Now if the public has to resort to RTI to elicit information from Kabir a NGO who was one of the leading NGOs driving the Anna agitation; the legitimacy of an anti-corruption movement starts taking a hit!

Ford Foundation is no ordinary donor. Its link with the CIA is well documented, including information taken from sources from its own archives. For NGOs to accept Ford Foundation grants and avoid the perceived image of CIA agents, then NGOs should go beyond statutory requirements of disclosures. They should voluntarily and pro-actively adopt full disclosure standards that reveal all pertinent information to the accounts statement. This abject failure is probably why Anna NGOs are unable to shrug off their image as foreign agents and the image of their anti-corruption agitation as one bankrolled by Ford Foundation!

Read more:

nagesh kini
Replied to Rajan alexander comment 1 decade ago
Whoever said the NGOs are Holy Cows that ought to be worshipped?
A Report by GOI appointed CAPHART states that a large majority of the NGOs are bogus, floated only to collect grants that end in someone's pockets. Substantial part of the income instead of being spent on its aims go for executive class travel and five star stays for 'workshops' and seminars.
Why only Ford Foundation, there are Rockefellar, Clinton, Bill & Melinda Foundations too.
After the State, the NGO or Not-for-Profit sector is said to be the next biggest employment generator.
The present dual controls of Ministry of Home with the FCRA and Finance are no effective Regulators for this vast sector with international ramifications.
MK Gupta
Replied to nagesh kini comment 1 decade ago
Thank you, Mr. Kini for making this statement which I think a few others (including some ex-IRS people) have been making. Most of the NGOs are private initiatives of the powerful and successful people, for gaining more access to the power lobbies and furthering the private interests of the people "controlling" and running these "closely held" outfits. For them, obtaining IT exemptions/benefits of ss. 80G/35CCA or 35AC, FCRA, etc., is just a child's play as most of these NGOs are "floated"and run by influential professors of prestigious colleges (in search of foreign assignments of lecture tiurs at will), spouses/children of highly placed civil servants, business magnates or their fronts, apart from the political persons to route their illegal collections and siphon the proceeds of "public" donations and govt. grants. This has been institutionalised further by the association with these high profile NGOs of high ranking civil servants (both ex- and serving), journalists, ad (media) world personalities and the like and, above all, Godmen of various kinds. All this is extremely paying, in every respect. And, in return, the children of the families running these fashionable NGOs can sojourn abroad at will at the cost of the NGOs in the name of doing social work furthering the objects of the NGOs! Of course, rations are distributed among the poor people with a lot of publicity while many NGOs also shelter some very undesirable people with notorious past too. In India, everything goes. The low profile charitable societies beg for donations in their back-to-the-wall efforts to serve the poorest in the remote corners of the counytry while the globe trotting high profile NGO-runners get all the mileage and govt. funding!
Rajan Alexander
Replied to MK Gupta comment 1 decade ago
@MK Agree with all your observations. The high profile and the award winning NGOs are usually those who perhaps were committed in the past but lost their way as they grew big and gained public recognition. It is at this stage, they lobby to get awards.

Ironically, it is when NGOs are small, struggling and unrecognized that they usually show most commitment.

NGOs demand transparency and accountability from the govt but do not serve themselves as examples. If at all,NGOs are usually only accountable to their donors.

All said and done, by and large, NGOs do some very useful work. Like any other part of society, we are human and have an equal amount of black sheep but not anything more than other part of humanity.
Replied to Rajan Alexander comment 1 decade ago
Very enlightening discussion on the subject of the "purportd" non-profit-organisations a.k.a NGOs. The real work is being done by tiny, low profile trusts/societies/associations by collecting, whenever possible, small sums of donations from small people as they have no access to the corporates or the govt. officers (who expect returns for the favours). Let me hope that Ratan Tata's proposed NGO (which is expected to commence work shortly) will make a difference, and with not careerists/executives on compensation (for rendering social service!) in crores but with dedicated and selfless people with commitment to the society at large--like the Tatas.
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