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Will the UPA govt clear the budget hurdle?

February 22, 2013 20:28 IST

With the Budget Session of Parliament getting underway, the United Progressive Alliance government is hoping that its pending legislations will eventually be approved this time even though financial business will naturally have to be given precedence.

With a little over a year to go for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the ruling combine would like to show something for itself but the opposition may play spoilsport as it has been doing so far.

As political considerations take over in an election year, the opposition can be expected to use its majority in the Rajya Sabha to block the UPA government’s ambitious legislative agenda to deny the Congress from taking any credit on delivering on its promises.

It is over two years since Congress President Sonia Gandhi laid down a roadmap for the UPA government to tackle the growing menace of corruption in her address on the opening day of the All India Congress Committee session at Burari.

The five-point action plan included fast-tracking of corruption cases against public servants including politicians, doing away with the discretionary powers of ministers especially in land allocations, greater transparency in public procurement, an open competitive system of exploiting natural resources and state funding of elections.

Sonia’s speech was predictably followed by a flurry of activity in the government which promptly set up a Group of Ministers in 2011 to suggest measures to tackle corruption with a special focus on the Congress president’s proposals.

The urgency displayed by the government was also prompted by the overwhelming public support for social activist Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption campaign and the demand for the enactment of a strong Lokpal Bill.

Acting on the recommendation of the GOM on corruption, the Centre withdrew the discretionary powers enjoyed by Central ministers and directed that requests for sanction for the prosecution of officers be decided within three months.

This was to address the  complaint that graft charges against public servants keep languishing as the sanction required to proceed against them is kept pending for years on end.

Except for these two concrete announcements, the UPA government’s periodic pronouncements about its commitment in dealing effectively with corruption have begun to ring hollow as most of its major measures in this regard are yet to materialise.

Most importantly, the ruling combine’s ambitious anti-graft legislative agenda has hit a roadblock in Parliament. This is particularly embarrassing for the Congress-led UPA government as it finds itself in the dock once again on the issue of corruption following the ongoing revelations about the purchase of AgustaWestland helicopters.

The Centre will be according top priority to the passage of the controversial Lokpal Bill which has been redrafted a number of times to accommodate the views of all the political parties.

It was sent to a Parliamentary select committee in 2011 when the Bill was locked in the Rajya Sabha by the opposition and its UPA’s former ally, the Trinamool Congress, which objected to the inclusion of Lokayuktas in the bill on the plea that it violated the country’s federal structure.

The committee has since given its report and a redrafted Bill is set to be tabled again in the Upper House this session but the political class is not happy about the development.

While fear of a public backlash prevents most political parties from voicing their disapproval openly, the Samajwadi Party has no such qualms.

It has conveyed its reservations about the Lokpal Bill to Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath during the course of his meetings with political leaders prior to the budget session.

Unconvinced with the argument that political parties would lose their credibility if they failed to pass the Bill, a senior Samajwadi Party leader countered, “We have been clear about our opposition to the Bill at the outset and yet our party swept the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections.”

Besides the Lokpal Bill, the Centre will also attempt to get Parliamentary approval for the Citizen’s Charter Bill which was introduced in the Lok Sabha in 2010 but is yet to be discussed though the standing committee gave its report last year.

This Bill was drafted after Hazare touched a chord with the people when he highlighted the problems which a common man faces in accessing public services.

The Bill provides for the creation of a mechanism to ensure timely delivery of goods and services to citizens and has a stringent penalty clause in case officers fail to deliver within the specific timelines.

Another important legislation awaiting approval is The Prevention of Bribery of Foreign Public Officials and Officials of Public International Organisations Bill which was introduced in the Lok Sabha in 2011 and has since been scrutinised by the Parliamentary standing committee.

Had this Bill been passed, it could have proved useful in the investigations into the Agusta Westland chopper purchase because it provides a mechanism to deal with bribery by foreign public officials and officials of foreign international organisations.

The Bill also empowers the government to enter into agreements with other countries for enforcing this law and exchange of
investigative information.

The  Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill which  lays down enforceable standards of conduct for judges and  requires them to declare details of their and their family members' assets and liabilities and creates mechanisms to allow any person to complain against judges is still to be approved.

It is meant to ensure greater accountability of the judiciary as it allow any person to complain against judges on grounds of misbehaviour of incapacity.

The Bill is currently pending in the Rajya Sabha after it was approved by the Lok Sabha last year. The Whihistleblower's Bill was passed by the Lok Sabha two years ago but is still pending in the Upper House.

This legislation seeks to protect persons making disclosures about acts of corruption or criminal offence by a public servant and provides for the establishment of a mechanism for registering such complaints. This Bill is expected encourage citizens report cases of corruption without fear of being victimised.

The Lok Sabha is yet to discuss the Public Procurement Bill though it was introduced last year. The Bill, which flows from Sonia’s five-point action plan against corruption articulated at Burari, seeks to regulate public procurements by all ministries to ensure greater transparency and accountability.

Sunita Moga in New Delhi