Karnataka, a State Without a Trusted Watchdog
The office of Karnataka Lokayukta.
The office of Karnataka Lokayukta. (Photo Courtesy: The News Minute)

Karnataka, a State Without a Trusted Watchdog

Years ago, citizens used to gather early in the morning at the Karnataka Lokayukta office in Bengaluru. From women who were denied medical treatment at a hospital in North Karnataka to middle-class executives fed up of paying bribes, complainants lined up at the Lokayukta office with an assurance that justice will be served.

The Lokayukta, which blew the lid on the illegal mining scam in Karnataka in 2008, became synonym for justice.

In 2016, the Lokayukta’s power to book cases under the Prevention of Corruption Act was taken away. The new agency – the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) – which was given Lokayukta’s powers is now being attacked for coercing a bureaucrat to give a statement against Karnataka BJP chief BS Yeddyurappa.

While allegations of agencies being misused continue to come in, the common man no longer has a watchdog institution they can approach when harassed by the government machinery.

Santosh Hegde on the Future of Anti-Corruption Agencies in Karnataka

Except for raiding several lower and mid-level government officials, the Anti-Corruption Bureau has not gone against any politician or elected representative in the state. There have been several allegations that officers close to the government have been appointed in top posts of the ACB as well.

Tool for Political Parties

Both Congress and the BJP are known for using government institutions as a political tool. The ACB’s FIR against Yeddyurappa in the denotification case has been termed as retaliation for the Income Tax Department raids on Karnataka Energy Minister and Congress leader DK Shivakumar. Congress had then cried foul saying that the I-T Department was targeting Shivakumar as he had helped house Gujarat MLAs in Bengaluru.

Interestingly, the Karnataka Lokayukta had booked former Chief Ministers BS Yedyurappa and HD Kumarswamy in a denotification case in 2015. However, the BJP could not oppose the action as the Lokayukta was a quasi-government body, acting independently of the government. Whereas, the ACB falls under the purview of the state police chief, thus indirectly coming under the Chief Minister.

There Was Another ACB That Failed

Prior to 1984, the state had a Vigilance Commission. During this time, the government created an Anti-Corruption Bureau to specifically look into corruption cases. However, that ACB was subsequently scrapped as it was deemed ineffective.

Subsequently, the Karnataka Lokayukta was created in 1984. The Lokayukta had two parts to it – a body which would focus on complaint redressal and the Lokayukta police, which books cases under the Prevention of Corruption Act and file cases.

Autonomous No More

Even as the political blame games continue, the concerns of citizens over an institution that they can trust remains unaddressed. Justice Santosh Hegde, a former Lokayukta, who drafted the report of illegal mining in Karnataka, said that the people’s trust came from the fact that Lokayukta could act independently.

“When I was Lokayukta, the police wing reported to the Lokayukta and not the police chief. And we had given them autonomy to register cases and investigate. They got results. More than 700 cases were filed against MLAs, Ministers, and others,” he said.

Calling the present system “close to a joke,” Hegde said, “In the current system, if the ACB wants to book a case of corruption against a Minister, it will have to take permission from the Cabinet.”

Only an Effective System Can Bring Confidence Back

With a trusted institution eroded and the system replacing it turning into a paper tiger, the people of Karnataka can only rely on the courts for justice. With a huge backlog, asking for justice against government inaction in Karnataka is a difficult task.

Only when its investigative powers are restored can the Lokayukta, together with a charismatic head, become the institute that it was once was.

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