The Big Story: Something rotten
Five years after the Supreme Court pronounced it a “caged parrot” that “speaks in its master’s voice”, the credibility of the Central Bureau of Investigation is under question again. This week, it was reported that the bureau had written to the Central Vigilance Commission saying that its second-in-command, Rakesh Asthana, could not represent director Alok Verma in the matter of fresh appointments. Several officers being considered for induction into the investigating agency, the letter said, were “suspect/accused in criminal cases”. Asthana himself, it pointed out, was “under [the] scanner” in several cases. The matter reveals, once again, how the vicious cycle of corruption is sustained in this country. An agency responsible for investigating the corruptions of the political class, among other things, has been corrupted itself.
Asthana’s case is illustrative. His appointment was challenged in the Supreme Court by the NGO Common Cause as his name reportedly appeared in a diary seized from Sterling Biotech, a company being probed by the investigating agency for money laundering. During the court proceedings, it was also revealed that the agency’s director had also expressed reservations about Asthana’s appointment to the selection committee, along with a secret note detailing his links to Sterling Biotech. The court gave Asthana the benefit of doubt. The letter written by the Central Bureau of Investgation now, however, suggests that the allegations against Asthana were taken seriously. So how were the director’s objections overruled? Prashant Bhushan, the lawyer who appeared for Common Cause, suggests that Asthana is close to Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah, reviving old suspicions about political manipulations of the bureau.
These suspicions became common sense after the Supreme Court’s remarks in 2013. The agency was accused of submitting its report on the coal block allocation case to its then political masters, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, for some key edits. Several senior members of government had been implicated in the case. Accusations that the Central Bureau of Investigations is wielded as a weapon by the ruling party against political rivals keep cropping up. In the tenure of this government, the BJP stands accused of having used it against the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu, the Trinamul Congress in West Bengal and the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi.
The ruling party, then, would have every interest in appointing sympathetic individuals to senior posts in the Central Bureau of Investigation. Even apart from political influence, questions have been repeatedly been raised about the probity of these officers. Over the last few years, moreover, two of the bureau’s directors have been implicated in corruption cases: Ranjit Sinha, who was in charge when the coal allocation case was launched, and AP Singh, who is said to have received funds extorted from an industrialist. The current fracas is a heady mix of both corruption within the ranks and suspicions of political manoeuvring. It reveals an organisation pulled in two ways between its director and the second most senior officer, and a lack of transparency in appointments and decision making.
The Central Bureau of Investigation’s own pleas for greater autonomy from government have gone nowhere in the past. But as the agency struggles to “maintain organisational integrity”, it may be time to revisit the idea. As the country enters election year, it will be watched closely as it investigates a range of politicians. If any of these probes are to have credibility, and if public faith in the rule of law is to be preserved, the independence of the Central Bureau of Investigation must be secured.
- In the Indian Express, Shailendra Raj Mehta is sceptical about a survey that found India to be the most dangerous country for women.
- In the Hindu, Ravi Arvind Palat takes stock of United States President Donald Trump’s incendiary tour of Europe.
- In the Telegraph, Prabhat Patnaik predicts that academics will soon be margiinalised in decisionmaking on academic matters.
Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava reports on the tribal affairs ministry’s opposition to the draft National Forest Policy:
Since the 1988 policy was adopted, successive governments have chosen not to let industry take over natural forests, lest they undermine the rights and interests of the marginalised communities dwelling in them. In 2006, the Congress-led government passed the Forest Rights Act to further strengthen the rights of Adivasis over forests, which the colonial rulers had turned into government property.
In 2015, the Bharatiya Janata Party government broke with this long-held position, issuing guidelines to states for “participation of private sector in the afforestation of degraded forests”. The guidelines laid out a process of leasing, through competitive bidding, degraded forests to private entities for afforestation and extracting timber. Degraded forests are defined by the government as green lands with less than 40% tree canopy density. India has 3.4 crore hectares of degraded forests, amounting to over 40% of its total green cover, according to the Forest Survey of India.
The 2015 plan, however, failed to move forward because the 1988 forest policy did not permit it. The new draft policy, if finalised, will allow the government to revive the plan.