The Big Story: Law and behold
This week, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley returned to an old bugbear: the Prevention of Corruption Act, which he called an “anarchic law”, badly crafted and inimical to decision-making. He also claimed that it posed a threat to federal structures, alleging that states overreached to act against Central government employees. This fresh raft of complaints emerges just weeks after the Pune police arrested the entire top management of the Bank of Maharashtra for a loan to a scam-tainted private company, allegedly in violation of the institution’s lending rules. The anti-graft law, intended to crack down on public servants, has been anathema to successive governments. In the United Progressive Alliance years, it was blamed for causing the notorious “policy paralysis”. In the National Democratic Alliance’s tenure, Jaitley has repeatedly taken aim at the law for slowing down functions such as the recovery of non-performing assets by public sector banks and called for amendments.
The argument that stringent anti-corruption laws is antithetical to economic growth as it hampers the work of bureaucrats and creates a policy freeze has rare consensus across the aisle. But the amendments suggested by government so far do not evince much confidence. The Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill 2013, was floated by the Congress government and the BJP has since tried to push it through. Controversially, the bill makes bribe giving as well as bribe taking an offence. It also waters down several provisions of the 1988 law: it redefines criminal misconduct to cover just the misappropriation of property and the possession of disproportionate assets, narrows definitions and penalties for a range of offences, outlines powers and procedures for seizing the property of public servants accused of corruption and stipulates prior sanction for the prosecution of public officials, even former officials. Detractors have pointed out that by narrowing the definition of corruption, it leaves out a range of misdemeanors, it increases the burden of proof necessary to prosecute the corrupt and increases protections for public officials accused of corruption. Most crucially, it seems to require political sanction for prosecution, strengthening what has pithily been called the “babu-neta nexus”.
For all the complaints of the political class, India’s anti-corruption mechanisms are exceptionally weak. Watering down the 1988 law would make them worse. It is the law, for instance, that has been been deployed in big-ticket cases such as the 2G spectrum scam and the irregularities in coal allocation. Economists have often drawn a correlation between corruption and high economic growth, and what constitutes graft is constantly being recalibrated. But it has been argued that diluting anti-graft laws would only have negative long-term economic impacts: it would erode the sense of a rule of law, which creates public confidence and draws investment. Besides, there is no compelling evidence to show that it is the work of the investigating agencies and anti-corruption cases that is slowing down growth and decisionmaking. For now, the noise against the law sounds like the cavilling of netas to save their own.
The Big Scroll
Saikat Datta asks why the BJP is set on amending the anti-corruption law, that too in an opaque manner.
- In the Indian Express, Shailaja Chandra points out that the lieutenant governor and the bureaucracy continue to influence a host of policy matters in Delhi.
- In the Hindu, R Nagaraj examines the latest employment estimates put out by the Central Statistics Office.
- In the Telegraph, TCA Raghavan tries to read the change in Pakistan.
Devarsi Ghosh reports on how India has been separating immigrant families for years before United States President Donald Trump started doing so:
“When immigrant families are detained, the parents are arrested and sent to judicial custody, while children above the age of six are presented before a Child Welfare Committee and the Juvenile Justice Board, before being sent to a shelter home away from the parents. There are about 80 such shelter homes in West Bengal – separate ones for girls and boys.
Sucharita Sengupta of the Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group documented several such cases in a study published in 2015. One of the cases was of Bhaduribala, then 40 years old and imprisoned in the Behrampur Central Correctional Home for seven years. She claimed to have left Bangladesh following political unrest. She had entered India with two little children, a boy and a girl, who were sent to shelter homes where they grew up to be adults. While in jail, Bhaduribala had not seen her daughter and son for over four years.”