Karnataka BJP-Congress lawmakers spar over anti-graft bureau

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Bengaluru, March 21 (IANS) The Karnataka legislative assembly on Monday saw uproarious scenes and heated exchanges between lawmakers of the ruling Congress and opposition BJP on the government setting up the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) in a bid to ‘scuttle’ the Lokayukta (ombudsman).

Though the lower house was to debate on the state budget for the ensuing fiscal (2016-17), which Chief Minister Siddaramaiah presented on Friday, opposition leader and former chief minister Jagadish Shettar of the BJP urged Speaker K. Thimmappa to allow a discussion on the controversial ACB, which has enraged the people in the state.

Sensing the mood of the opposition benches, as the Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S) supported the BJP demand, the speaker allowed a discussion on the ACB.

The ACB was notified on March 14 when the anti-graft watchdog Lokayukta had not been in limbo in the absence of its head (ombudsman) and one of its two upa lokayuktas (Justice Subash B. Adi) going on protest leave till the month-end.

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“It should be called Corruption Protection Bureau (CPB) and not PCB as its formation is an attempt to shield the chief minister, some cabinet ministers and officials from facing the Lokayukta, as they are all facing serious corruption charges,” Shettar claimed and urged the government to withdraw the bureau.

Though Karnataka was the first state to set up the anti-graft institution in 1984 under the Karnataka Lokayukta Act, the state government had set up the ACB last Monday, ostensibly, to provide a transparent and efficient administration, saying it was following a 1988 directive of the Supreme Court in a case between an aggrieved petitioner and the anti-graft watchdog.

“The ACB will weaken the Lokayukta by setting up a parallel anti-graft body to investigate offences after taking permission of the state government,” Shettar said.

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The state Lokayukta has been headless after its ombudsman Justice Y. Bhaskar Rao resigned on December 9 after the watchdog’s police accused his son Y. Ashwhin Rao of indulging in extortion and arrested him on July 27, 2015.

Defending the ACB, state Law Minister T.B. Jayachandra denied the opposition’s charge that the government was curtailing the powers of the Lokayukta and its police officials in probing graft cases registered with it by the affected people.

“The KLA and Prevention of Corruption Act are different laws, as the former empowers the quasi-judicial Lokayukta to only inquire into complaints against public servants but does not allow criminal investigation against them and others accused of seeking or taking bribe,” Jayachandra asserted.

The Karnataka High Court had also held that the Lokayukta did not have the jurisdiction to supervise criminal investigation under the Prevention of Corruption Act through its police wing on the basis of the apex court judgment.

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The state government had therefore decided to separate the two roles by forming the ACB on the lines of the central government.

“The ACB will be a statutory authority to investigate graft offences, while the ombudsman’s police wing will assist Lokayukta and Upa Lokayuktas in carrying their duties under the KLA,” Jayachandra added.

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