The test case of insults being inflicted on the capital's ombudsman is a trailer to what awaits the Lokpal
Rohit Bansal | January 20, 2012
The man responsible for inquiring against top public functionaries in the national capital territory (NCT) of Delhi hasn’t been given the elbow room to decide whether he can have a new sweeper in his office.
For more than two years, Justice Manmohan Sarin, the NCT Lokayukta, has suffered two sweepers given to him on lien by the state government he is supposed to rap. The slight problem is that while cases before him have gone up ten times, one of these honourable sweepers, supposedly afflicted with an addiction, doesn’t do much work. All that Sarin therefore wants is to have the man off his back. If that’s too sensitive a matter, the judge is willing to get rid of both wonderful sweepers and have his modest office in the back lanes of Delhi’s ITO area cleaned by three outsourced professionals.
But it is the NCT government, not Sarin, on the judgment seat here. Believe it or not, there are several official letters exchanged on the subject. In one of them, a babu has asked the former chief justice of J&K (now reappointed Lokayukta under statute which explicitly states that all his terms and conditions will be those of a chief justice of the state high court) to justify why three sweepers are needed when two are doing the job!
Out of sheer frustration, the ombudsman escalated his woes to the durbar of Delhi’s lieutenant governor Tejendra Khanna. Khanna, a dyed-in-the-wool old-school former bureaucrat, granted Sarin some dignity. Thus written orders were issued to the NCT government on the lines of what the Lokayukta had been demanding. But three months have passed and chief minister Sheila Dikshit has refused to comply. Khanna on his part is a little feeble by now. He’s undergoing withdrawal symptoms impending a retirement.
This is just one of several examples where the ombudsman’s nose has been rubbed to the ground.
Take Sarin’s recommendations for action against a Delhi minister, Raj Kumar Chauhan, who under oath confessed that he, in the heat of the moment, had ended up tampering with a tax survey (raid) under way against a business man. The Lokayukta’s indictment “disentitling the minister of her pleasure”, was rejected by the president of India on Dikshit’s advice. The argument? The Lokayukta's role is recommendatory and in the instant case, the inference of the minister’s guilt (based also on the concerned commissioner’s statement that he told the minister that he can’t recall the survey team) was a conjecture!
A more sordid episode involved a housing scheme for the poor. Here Sarin confirmed the accusation by one Sunita Bhardwaj that Dikshit released brochures with her picture stating that thousands of houses have been built, when, in fact, besides the moral impropriety, several years later what of houses, even land hadn’t been allotted. When confronted with the Lokayukta’s judgment of misstatement, Dikshit placed the blame at the doorstep of the BJP, which she said, quite rightly though irrelevant to the facts here, is jealous of her. She also front-faced the defence quoting a translator that the brochure’s Hindi and English versions don’t match.
An angry Sarin buttressed his own commonsensical familiarity with both languages and torpedoed the claim via Delhi high court’s official translator. Finally, he recommended a mild censure on high public functionaries making misleading statements. But lo and behold, even that verdict was turned down by the competent authority (under the Lokayukta statute, the president, the LG or the chief secretary has this role, as the case may be) and evidence of mala fide clearly alluded by the judge was denied. Instead, Sarin’s proposal for censure was diverted towards a faceless urban development agency.
A judge who can’t offer clean washrooms to his clerks and security staff is confronted with insults on a daily basis. In the swearing-in of some Delhi ministers, he walked in only to find that there was no chair for him. Blessed with some earthy courtesy, two burly MLAs offered theirs, but only if the Lokayukta let them sit down too, which he did. Yes, the Lokayukta had to split the two seats with two others like we used to split soup in our muflis days, 3x2.
More sordid examples include absence of financial autonomy to replace a seven-year-old car in the office. The assent has to emanate from the NCT government, which the judge is expected to keep at an arm’s length. Professional travel overseas was rejected by the state government to participate in the Asian ombudsmen forum. But the ministry of external affairs (MEA) gave its assent. An embarrassed Sarin states in his XIIth annual report that he therefore decided to attend the conference at his own expense. He couldn’t because of sudden illness and an OSD did. Typical of the regulatory free-for-all in our country, in a similar instance where even MEA rejected the travel plan of state Lokayuktas, Mayawati told her chap to defy the MEA. The man traveled, on his red passport, without bothering about Delhi.
Sarin is just an illustrative example. Some 16 other state Lokayuktas don’t have a very different life. Some buy peace with the state’s CM, but not before conceding a large pound of flesh. Not surprisingly, governments do their bit not to let these judges join hands. A model Lokayukta legislation, harmonising several asymmetries among various state legislations, is in the cold storage. Even the national conference of ombudsmen assigned to Delhi has been awaiting a Dikshit/Khanna nod for over a year. Despite having no role in organising the conference except having the LG/CM attend it, the cited reason was that Delhi was busy with Commonwealth Games (CWG). Thus on Dikshit’s advice, Khanna refused the permission. With the CWG long over, Sarin recently revived his request for permission. Khanna turned back asking why his permission is being sought. Sarin has had to remind the LG that if he can use his powers to reject a proposal, how about using the same authority to accept it this time!
More sordid conflicts are set to emerge over provisional regularisation of Delhi’s colonies.
Besides zero financial autonomy; a purely recommendatory role (where the state has the last word, unless the Lokayukta wants to waste more time using the right to issue a special report); a fuzzy process where inquiries are restarted well after the ombudsman’s report, with new evidence being sought from the accused; no power of contempt or search and seizure (Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh Lokayuktas have search and seizure power); or even to try civil servants; the newest scrap is about who occupies a higher office, the ombudsman or the NCT chief minister he’s entitled to inquire against.
Miffed by having to squeeze himself on two chairs with the hospitable MLAs, Sarin has clearly stated in his annual report that “the Lokayukta ought to be placed in the order of precedence at par with the chief justice of a high court. In this regard reference may be made to the Table of Precedence dated 26.07.1979 issued by the president’s secretariat and published on the website of the ministry of home affairs (MHA)”. In the table Sarin has cited, the state high court CJ is at Sl No.14 three slots below Khanna, the LG, at Sl No.11, and one slot above Dikshit, the CM of the union territory, at Sl No.15.
But Dikshit isn’t willing to let go just as yet. She has pulled out some order of 28.10.2005 for ceremonial functions issued by MHA wherein Lokayukta is placed at Sl No.17. Sarin’s annual report had argued that the said table is not available on the MHA website. He has reminded the reader about that what in any case should carry superintendence over an MHA executive order, that is, the statutory provision under The Delhi Lokayukta and Upalokayukta Act, 1995, where “the Lokayukta is to be given salary, perquisites and allowances (and other conditions of service) of chief justice, if appointed from chief justices”.
For someone mandated to recover so much ground and stop just a notch below the LG, having the power to decide about his sweeper would be a good point to start.
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