Former Karnataka Lokayukta Justice Santosh Hegde is an angry man today. He is upset with the recent happenings in the state Lokayukta. First, the manner in which Lokayukta Justice Bhaskar Rao&’s son threatened and blackmailed bureaucrats and others with ease in lieu of protection from the Ombudsman&’s raid. That too right under the Lokayukta&’s nose. The second reason is the state government&’s attempt to strip the all-important institution of its powers.
Recent developments in the Lokayukta&’s office in the state are quite disturbing, even distressing. How do you view the situation considering that under you and your predecessor, Justice N Venkatachala, the institution had acquired a face and a standing of its own as one that went after the corrupt?
Before I answer that I need to give you some background. Somewhere in the 1960s the central government had referred the matter of corruption to the Administrative Reforms Commission which looked at other institution abroad. It suggested that the institution of the Ombudsman prevalent in Scandinavian countries would be ideal for India. Accordingly, it recommended the institution of the Lokpal at the Centre and the Lokayukta for states with powers to tackle both corruption and maladministration. Frankly, the central government was not interested in the institution. Its fear was that the ombudsman would be like a stone around its neck .
In 1983 the Janata Dal under Ramakrishna Hegde in Karnataka promised a value-based government in its election manifesto. In 1986 Karnataka set up the Ombudsman&’s institution, a pioneering effort for any state. The state Lokayukta had two jurisdictions one to investigate corruption and the second to probe government inaction .
The first two Lokyuktas, Justice A.D. Kaushal and Justice Rabindranath Pyne were not from the state. This became a bit of a handicap in that under the grievance jurisdiction of the Karnataka Lokyaukta Act, the ombudsman has to interact with the people, find solutions to their problems. The two Lokayuktas, however, carried the halo of the judiciariy and did not meet the aggrieved. Besides the language was also a problem. The institution was not very popular.
Then came Justice Venkatachala in 2001 though after a stint by Justice Abdul Hakeem. An outgoing person,Justice Venkatachala went on regular raids against the corrupt, taking the media along. He changed the look and image of the institution totally. People were happy watching the corrupt getting caught. He made the institution popular, gave it a face .
I came in 2006. The then government also gave us powers to investigate officers above the rank of deputy commissioners. This enabled the Lokayukta office to take on very senor officers and even ministers.
Everybody in the institution was doing a good job, evident from the fact that between 2006- 2011, the Lokayukta raided over 700 officers and powerful politicians. We would also examine complaints relating to construction of a building or for that matter a bridge which was not of good quality. The institution even had a 24 x 7 helpline. We were able to receive huge number of complaints from the common man.
For example, we had a little child who had no rectum. Doctors were not willing to operate without getting some easy money. My office was able to solve the problem and the child is now leading a normal life.
Likewise, there was the case of two engineering students who were denied hall tickets for their examinations as they had failed to pay their fees. I found out that the government which had made a commitment to pay their fees because of their poor background, had failed to do so. This too was sorted out though not without some drama,as it were.
In other words, if you are people-friendly, you can do a lot. This is what we in the Lokayukta could do besides, of course, exposing illegal mining leading to the indictment of B S Yeddyurappa the then chief minister .
Therefore, when you see the plight of the institution now, you feel sorry.
In the light of the above, the Justice Bhaskar Rao episode must have come as a shock.
The Bhaskar Rao episode where his son Ashwin is learnt to have brazenly extorted money from bureaucrats and engineers alike in return for protection from Lokayukta raids is a big blow.
Actually, when Justice Rao was being considered for the Lokayukta&’s post, the Karnataka High Court bar association passed a resolution against him, even urging the then chief minister against considering him arguing that he did not have a clean reputation.
Yet he was appointed. Under the circumstances the inevitable question that arises is – what was the collegium set up to select the Lokayukta doing? Why did it ignore the Bar Association&’s pleas? It is indeed surprising considering that the collegium comprises the chief minister, leaders of the opposition in the assembly and the legislative council, the presiding officers of the two houses as also the Chief Justice of India. How could these responsible people appoint Justice Rao? They are answerable to the people of Karnataka. People want to know. Need to know. Incidentally, I also learn that he is the nephew of former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao.
I believe that social activist Hiremath had also warned Justice Rao about his son&’s nefarious activities, even asked him to keep him away?
Indeed. There was evidence to show misuse of office. Mr Hiremath had cautioned Justice Rao about Ashwin. For that matter, even the then commissioner of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagar Palike, Mr Lakshminarayan, had told the Lokayukta that Ashwin was threatening his staff.
To these complaints and warnings, Justice Rao had only one thing to say: that he had nothing to do with Ashwin and that he had disowned him. Yet, Ashwin was alleged to have been operating from the very premises from where the Lokayukta was functioning. Why, there were reports that he would even call the “victims” to the residence of the ombudsman himself.
When the Ashwin case was exposed, following complaints by an executive engineer, Mr Krishnamurthy, it opened up a can of worms. The subsequent events are too well known to bear repetition. Justice Rao then wrote to the government to give the probe to an agency of its choice.
We wanted the CBI to probe the misuse of office as all the police agencies are under the Lokayukta. But I learn from news reports that somewhere the government advised Justice Rao to ask for a SIT, a request that was acceded to with alacrity.
Are you happy with the subsequent development and the probe by the SIT?
I have no issue with the SIT in general. But in this case they should have arrested Justice Rao especially as Section 109 of the Indian Penal code clearly says anybody abetting a person to commit a crime is guilty of that crime. Here is his son Ashwin who used his telephone and residence to call people and threaten them. Then there is the example of Mr Hiremath and Mr Laxminarayan and their complaints and warnings. And yet Justice Rao did not do anything. So what more evidence do you need? All this is abetting a person to commit a crime. There is no need to show that he also took a share. For reasons best known to the SIT, he has now been made a witness instead of the accused.
But now he himself has resigned?
I personally feel that the government should not have accepted his resignation.More so as the assembly Speaker has already sent his report against Justice Rao to the Chief Justice of the Karnataka High Court. This was done after the law makers submitted a petition against the ombudsman.
Now Justice Rao would know very well that in the event the three-judge committee, which the CJI would have set up to probe his conduct, went against him, it would be curtains for him. He would be in real trouble, isn’t it? Because no trial court or police would then be able to say no case or evidence is available. It is this fear that has caused him to resign.
I thought he should not have been allowed to resign without facing the consequences. But then there is a lacuna in the process followed regarding cases relating to senior judges as well. The moment Parliament discusses their conduct, they resign. Then the matter is dropped so no criminatlity is attached.
Therefore, if Justice Rao had been proved not guilty by the three-judge bench, fine. But what if it was otherwise? That is why the argument against acceptance of his resignation.
I believe there is also the charge that the day he went on leave, Justice Rao whisked away five bundles of papers from the Lokayukta&’s office? This has led to a lot of speculation, even questions whether he could do that?
Frankly, I do not know why the Lokayukta office is not sending its police to recover the papers. Justice Rao had no business to take the papers. These should be seized. The registry at the Lokayukta office can also detail the cases they related to, if at all. Every case has a number.
The Justice Rao episode also shows the state government, rather the politicians, in poor light. This raises doubts about their seriousness on the institution of the Lokayukta. Particularly,the manner in which the ruling Congress sought the removal of Justice Adi, the Upa-Lokayukta, albeit unsuccessfully.
Yes. But then I do not think you need to kill the institution for the sins of one person. People need relief and redressal of their grievances which the Lokayukta can definitely provide whether to check corruption or to respond to complaints of maladministration. The government should not make a mockery of the institution by denuding it of its powers.
In fact, it tried to dilute the Lokayukta&’s powers in 2014 on the pretext of bringing the institution in conformity with the Lokpal Bill, something that itself has no teeth.
In its proposed bill, the state government sought to ensure that the Lokayukta had only one jurisdiction, that is to fight corruption . It planned to take away the grievance redressal jurisdiction. If that comes about what will the Lokayukta be left with? To investigate corruption, something that is the responsibility of the Lokayukta police? In other words, the Lokayukta would be left with no work.
Similarly, the Justice Adi episode leaves a bad taste in the mouth. This was nothing but an attempt to bring in a new Lokayukta bill aimed at destroying the integrity of the institution.
So would you reiterate that the Karnataka Lokayukta Act of 1984 is the best in the country? And it should not be tampered with?
The people in power should not dilute this act. I also hope that the new Lokayukta who takes charge now would not only be a person of integrity but would also respond to the grievances of the people and try and redress them.