Through 2011 and 2012, India Against Corruption was one of the biggest citizens’ movements and its main demand was an ombudsman – a Lokpal – who could tackle corruption in India. The lasting contribution of this movement was a new political party, the Aam Aadmi Party, and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.

But what about the Lokpal and its promise to curb corruption?

Parliament passed the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill, 2011, in December 2013 and the act came into force after the president’s assent in January 2014. But India’s first Lokpal – former Supreme Court judge PC Ghose – was appointed in March 2019 following much delay.

Even so, with the Lokpal set up, there was an expectation that it would check corruption. Most civil society members and the media display a quaint approach to such appointments. In its first year, 2019-’20, the Lokpal received 1,427 complaints. Given its complete inaction, the next year it received only 110 complaints. There has been no significant effect on corruption and the Lokpal will be yet another addition to the list of various commissions in the country that act as a sinecure for retired people – a senior citizen’s club.

India’s commissions, regulators and such other institutions are designed as checks and balances of democracy. If they do their job properly, they can have a strong impact and ensure good governance. But the truth is that a significant number of them are ineffective.

Consider three such institutions created earlier.

The Maharashtra Lokayukta – an ombudsman meant to address citizens’ grievances against the state – has a staff of over 80 people. It received 11,153 complaints during the 25-year period between 1981 and 2006 but recommended action in only 57.

The Police Complaint Authority of Maharashtra, which was set up in 2017 nearly a decade after a Supreme Court judgement to curb atrocities and illegal acts by the police, received 832 complaints in 2018 and recommended action in only six cases. The recommendation was to conduct a police inquiry and then order punishment.

Many Information Commissions, too, are taking more than a year to make a decision. Do citizens really feel that the organisations, such as the many commissions set up for human rights, women, children, minorities, disabled people, consumers and more, are having a reasonable impact on their lives?

Ramdev speaks at the Ramlila grounds during the India Against Corruption movement in New Delhi in August 2011. The banner behind him reads "Pass the Lokpal Law" in Hindi. Credit: AFP.

These institutions are meant to be the checks and balances of democracy. If they do not function, there is corruption and arbitrary action by the executive leading to poor governance.

The truth is that most of them are a façade. Many of them do not even function within the timeframes set by the law. With each such commission that is established, there is an estimated expense of Rs 5-Rs10 crore. They mislead citizens into believing there is relief and instead waste time and effort. What is the way out?

There are a few root causes:

1. There is no thought given to the essential qualities, experience and attitudes required to hold positions in these bodies.

2. The selection process lacks transparency – most of them are selected because of political patronage or bureaucratic networking.

3. There is no evaluation of their performance nor any list of deliverables.

4. Most of them become tools to harass citizens with no commitment to the timeliness of their work.

Here are some possible solutions to this problem:

1. First, deliverables should be worked out for all commissioners or members of such bodies. Based on these, required qualifications, experience and attitudes should be specified. Timeliness of decisions must be ensured.

2. A search committee should invite applications or nominations for these positions. They should shortlist the most suitable candidates based on the criterion decided.

3. The shortlisted candidates must be interviewed in a manner where the public and media can watch and record the interviews. The interviews must elicit from the prospective candidates their views on the law, commitments, and what they will achieve if selected.

4. The search committee should recommend two to three times the number of people to be selected by the final selection committee. The final list should be selected out of these.

5. There should be complete transparency in this process.

It is also necessary to ensure the evaluation of the work of such organisations and their members. This evaluation should be undertaken by academic bodies or civil society organisations. A set of criteria should be developed and evolved to judge the work of every commissioner. These should also involve perception indices of citizens and officers dealing with them.

There should be emphasis on evaluating whether the organisations are working as per the law in terms of timeliness and effectiveness. A critical element should be to judge if there has been any improvement in the areas these commissions were supposed to address. Their decisions and performance should be closely monitored. If such an evaluation is published regularly, along with scrutinising the work of each commissioner or member, it would serve as useful feedback for the members manning these institutions.

The annual reports of most of these institutions are meaningless rhetoric filled with inanities. Instead, all relevant details of their functioning must be displayed on their websites on a weekly basis. Only then can these checks and balances of Indian democracy be expected to work and deliver. Otherwise, citizens will fool themselves into believing that commissioners and lokpals have clothes. Good governance will remain a mirage.

Shailesh Gandhi is a former Central Information Commissioner.