Ordinance to undermine Kerala Lokayukta's powers. Opposition cries foul

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan

Thiruvananthapuram: The LDF government has decided to promulgate an ordinance diluting the Lokayukta's power to order the removal of a public servant found guilty of misuse of power.

Once the proposed amendment comes into force, the last word on a Lokayukta verdict will rest with the "competent authority", mostly the Chief Minister. The Lokayukta Amendment ordinance was approved during the last Cabinet meeting.

As it stands, the Lok Ayukta or an Upa-Lok Ayukta's orders, arrived at after investigation into complaints, are binding on the government. "The competent authority" (the Governor or the Chief Minister or the government as the case may be) shall accept the declaration", the Kerala Lokayukta Act, 1999, says.

"When the declaration so made is accepted, the fact of such acceptance shall immediately be intimated by registered post, by the Governor, the Government or the Chief Minister, if any of them is the competent authority," the Lokayukta Act further states.

The proposed ordinance now bestows power on the "competent authority" to either accept or reject the Lokayukta order after conducting a final hearing. The "competent authority", however, will have to take a decision within three months or the Lok Ayukta verdict will be deemed as accepted.

The proposed ordinance has stoked concerns that the anti-corruption body, created to check corruption in the government, would be emasculated. Take for instance, the Lokayukta verdict on former minister K T Jaleel. Lokayukta had found that Jaleel had abused his position as minister to appoint a relative as the general manager of Kerala State Minorities Development Corporation.

Jaleel refused to accept the verdict and he approached the Supreme Court. The apex court refused to stay the Lokayukta order and Jaleel had no choice but to resign. But if the amendment was in place then, the Chief Minister, being the "competent authority" in a minister's case, could have held a final hearing and could probably rule in favour of Jaleel.

Opposition cries foul

The proposed amendment has come close on the heels of the University row. On January 12 this year, the Lokayukta had directed the state government and higher education minister R Bindu to submit their explanations on a petition submitted by former opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala in connection with the re-appointment of the Kannur Vice Chancellor.

The minister, who is also the pro-chancellor of the university, had written twice to the Governor, the Chancellor, recommending the re-appointment of Gopinath Ravindran as Kannur University Vice Chancellor. The Governor himself had rebelled against this.

Chennithala's Lokayuktha petition said that the minister had no right to make such a recommendation and said it was a case of nepotism.

The former opposition leader was quick to cry foul saying the government's move was in anticipation of a damning verdict against the higher education minister. "What was the emergency that prompted the government to issue the ordinance in such haste," Chennithala told reporters on Tuesday. He also said it was suspicious that the press release informing about Cabinet decisions was silent on the proposed ordinance. Chennithala also wanted Governor Arif Mohammed Khan to refuse approval for the ordinance.

Incidentally, the Lokayukta is also probing the allegation that Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan abused his position to grant financial assistance to at least three ‘ineligible’ persons from the Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund (CMDRF).

The charge was that the Chief Minister used the funds meant for the disaster-affected to clear the debts of the late CPI(M) legislator K.K. Ramachandran and also to pay relief to the family of a police officer, Praveen, who had died while on escort duty for CPI(M) State secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan. The diversion of CMDRF funds to the family of late NCP leader Uzhavoor Vijayan was also questioned.

Appealing to the Governor not to give assent to the ordinance, Opposition Leader V D Satheesan sent a letter to him saying the move was to "waterdown" the powers of the Lok Ayukta. He also expressed apprehension that this would destroy the very existence of the establishment of the watchdog.

Referring to the Section 3 of the Kerala Lok Ayukta Act, 199, Satheesan pointed out that a person can only be appointed as Lok Ayukta if he had previously served as a Supreme Court Judge or a Chief Justice of a High Court. "Weakening this provision to allow any former High Court Judge to hold office will only serve to lower the status of the state's most significant institution.

Above all, it is learned that the proposed ordinance will curtail the powers of the Lok Ayukta to mere advisory in nature,' the Congress leader said in the letter.

Taking away the powers of the anti-corruption agency would "spell doom" to the entire institution and intended to destroy it, he said and requested the Governor to abstain from giving assent to the ordinance considering public interest.

Meanwhile, BJP state Chief K Surendran alleged that the government took the hasty decision as the Lok Ayukta was considering some of the biggest corruption scandals against the government. He claimed that the agency was considering seriously the allegation that the money from the Chief Minister's Distress Relief Fund was disbursed among underserved persons. The move was the latest example of the Left government to take control of all constitutional institutions, Surendran added. 

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