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Wednesday 14 December 2011

Centre moves to contain Anna effect Cabinet seal on three bills to fight graft

Centre moves to contain Anna effect
Cabinet seal on three bills to fight graft

Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh at the meeting of UPA leaders in New Delhi on Tuesday. Picture by Prem Singh
New Delhi, Dec. 13: The cabinet today cleared three anti-graft bills which, in tandem with the Lokpal bill, will be the Centre’s sharpest prong against Anna Hazare and the BJP-led Opposition in the battle against corruption.
The three bills include those on the Citizen’s Charter — on time-bound redress of complaints — Judicial Accountability and the Public Interest Disclosure and Protection to Persons Making the Disclosures — the whistleblower’s bill.
The government hopes to pass these in the ongoing winter session along with the Lokpal bill to blunt Hazare’s renewed offensive that kicked off with a day’s token fast on Sunday and is expected to be revived with an indefinite fast from December 27.
The Opposition’s calculation is that the activist’s campaign might detract from the advantage the Congress hoped to gain in the elections to Uttarakhand and Punjab, both BJP-ruled states, in February. The Congress believes the rush of bills will mitigate the impact of the Opposition’s rhetoric.
However, the Congress and the government’s agenda to balance their political offensive against graft with big-ticket social reforms appeared to falter.
The cabinet could not clear the Food Security Bill, close to Sonia and Rahul Gandhi’s heart. The government has already put off the Land Acquisition and Relief and Rehabilitation amendments following Mamata Banerjee’s objections.
The Gandhis had wanted the food bill passed in this session. But it seems that the draft, reworked for nearly three years in concert with the Sonia-headed National Advisory Council and food rights campaigners, is still inchoate over crucial areas related to the criteria for identifying the beneficiaries, the projected costs and the subsidies needed to finance the plan in the long term.
Government sources said there was no point in bringing a “half-baked” bill that the allies and the Opposition could potentially negate. “Not after the experience on FDI in retail,” a source said.
At today’s cabinet meeting, P. Chidambaram and Ghulam Nabi Azad raised queries about cost-sharing with states to implement the food law. Most states have raised the red flag to provisions that require them to share the expenses in a legally binding regime.
The judicial accountability bill is expected to create a statutory mechanism to probe individual complaints against sitting judges and recommend action. Home minister Chidambaram was reported to have sought safeguards against conflict of interest arising from social acquaintanceship. Chidambaram, himself a lawyer, appeared to be referring to situations where there is friendship between a judge hearing a case in which a lawyer friend is representing either of the parties.
The whistleblowers’ bill intends to protect informers and RTI activists from being victimised.
The Citizen’s Charter bill, also called the grievance bill, will outline the administration’s obligations to people and fix responsibility on officials. When this was taken up, Chidambaram wondered what would happen in states that already had a version of the law.
Mukul Wasnik, the minister for social justice, also pitched into the debate, suggesting the period given to a bureaucrat to reply to complainant be extended from 15 days to a month. The proposal was accepted.
The Hazare effect appears to be telling on the government, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in particular. His office has outlined a “core governance agenda in the near term”.
Sources said topping the chart was the Lokpal bill’s implementation, if it becomes law, followed by electoral reforms. Singh also intends keeping a vigil on how the other proposed anti-graft laws cleared today panned out in practice.
“A mixed bag (of laws) but Hazare has forced the government to reorder its priorities. UPA I created an agenda on its terms but UPA II is being dictated to by a handful of civil society representatives,” rued a Congress minister.

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