The Supreme Court has quashed Section 6A of the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act, which required prior sanction of the government before investigating corruption cases involving senior officers working under the Central government. It would be foolhardy for a former civil servant to join issue with the judgment. While humbly accepting the court’s logic, it is also important to foresee what is likely to happen because of the verdict.
Mainly, the constitutional bench found the prior sanction provisions in the impugned enactment to be discriminatory. It divided the bureaucracy into two sets of officers — senior and working under the Central government’s control and relatively junior officers working both under the Central and state governments. It notes: “All government officials have to be treated equally and have to face the same process of inquiry in graft cases… The status or position of a public servant does not qualify such public servant to be exempt from equal treatment. The decision making power does not segregate corrupt officers into two classes as they are common crime doers and have to be tracked down by the same process of inquiry and investigation.”
With that, the judgment annuls the protective provisions that had been passed by Parliament, not once but twice — not counting an ordinance which had lapsed mid-way. But how far can one expect corruption to diminish as the result of the removal of a discriminatory barrier, even if one accepts that it treated public servants unequally? For that, one has to consider the magnitude of the problem as highlighted by the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), a top corruption watchdog to which the Supreme Court itself was instrumental in according statutory status. The latest annual report available on the CVC’s website refers to over 37,000 complaints received in 2012 (including “carry forward” cases from earlier years). Of these, a fifth needed to be closed because they were “anonymous”, “pseudonymous”, “vague” or “unverifiable”. This demonstrates how a large number of complaints get generated but every complaint does not necessarily merit investigation. Until now, the complaints were being scrutinised by the three-man commission. But now that the need for prosecution sanction has been removed, it would be possible for the CBI to start investigating any complaint considered serious. Past experience belies the hope that this police organisation would be as clinical in its approach as the CVC.
In the same report, the CVC refers to cases where criminal proceedings were recommended at the first stage of giving advice. The CVC supported investigation in less than a third of the cases where the CBI had submitted reports. Surprisingly, and contrary to popular perception, the CVC finally recommended criminal action in just 2.6 per cent of the cases received from the CBI and the chief vigilance officers. An overwhelmingly large proportion — as high as 50 per cent of the total cases — were advised to be closed, which only demonstrates that a preliminary examination undertaken by a statutory body did not point to corruption. In 30 per cent of the cases, departmental action was ordered, which is as different from criminal prosecution as chalk is from cheese. In only a fifth of the cases were routine administrative actions like the issuance of a warning advised. So, unless the CBI has eyes at the back of its head, the scourge of corruption is not going to be eliminated simply by giving it unbridled investigative authority against senior government personnel.
The second question to consider is the fate of the Prevention of Corruption Act (Amendment) Bill, 2013, which was introduced in the Rajya Sabha in August 2013. Since it was initiated in the Upper House of Parliament, the amendment bill cannot lapse even with the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha. This bill retains provisions for prior sanction for investigating serving officers and seeks to widen the ambit to protect retired public officials, too. Members of Parliament carry no brief for civil servants and when the amendment bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha, it was referred to a parliamentary standing committee, which gave its recommendations. Ten members of the Upper House and 20 members of the Lower House gave their recommendations after interacting with a large pool of knowledgeable and experienced organisations. These included representatives from state governments, managements of banks, ports, petroleum and lignite corporations, select NGOs, chambers of commerce and industry, the central vigilance commissioner, the CBI and the director, enforcement, to name just some. The fate of this comprehensive bill has now become uncertain.
It is also important to look at how the bulk of the complaints are generated. Wherever large financial considerations are involved, public servants are required to list the risks and benefits of preferring certain strategies over others. There are two stated goals behind such decision-making: higher growth and improving overall development. Invariably, the private sector is a key partner in most endeavours.
Whether it relates to tax rationalisation, revision of duties and fees, disinvestment or disposal of public assets, incentivising competitiveness, selecting a concessionaire or the build-operate-transfer route, someone has to gain but many necessarily have to lose. Under the Prevention of Corruption Act, a public servant can be prosecuted if she has taken a decision “that results in pecuniary gain to private parties”. In the process of economic decision-making, private parties are bound to benefit. Yet, it is normal for a string of complaints to be generated as soon as the decision is made public. Because of a spate of corruption cases, which are at various stages of prosecution, officers have already begun to shrink from decision-making. It has now to be seen how much the May 6 judgment will further hobble their approach.
This article is not intended to defend dishonest civil servants. While equality before law is fundamental, the need to build institutions is also vital. The biggest fallout of a correct and well-intentioned judgment could be unbridled sleuthing of the decision-making process that is the hallmark of governance.