The Karnataka High Court on Thursday abolished the contentious Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) established by the state government in 2016, which eventually led to defanging of the Lokayukta, the corruption watchdog in the State.
A division bench of Justices B.Veerappa and K.S.Hemalekha which passed the order on a batch of petitions challenging the constitution of the ACB opined that the field occupied by the Karnataka Lokayukta Act had been eroded by the constitution of the ACB.
"The state government is not justified in constituting ACB by way of an executive government order date March 14, 2016 when the Karnataka Lokayukta Act, 1984 has occupied the field to eradicate corruption in the State drawing powers under the Prevention of Corruption Act," said the Bench.
The court which directed that all cases pending before the ACB be transferred to the Karnataka Lokayukta also recommended for the police wing of the Karnataka Lokayukta to be strengthened by appointing honest persons with a track record of integrity and fairness. Also, the police personnel presently working at the ACB shall be transferred to the Karnataka Lokayukta Police Wing.
"Before parting with the matter, we deem it proper to observe that in order to eradicate corruption, keeping in view the Karnataka Lokayukta Act and the interest of justice qua public at large, we request constitutional authorities to recommend people with integrity, both in public and personal life to the post of Lokayukta, uninfluenced by caste, creed etc. and maintain transparency in appointment; should be non-political and the post should not be accommodation centre for anybody," the Court recorded.
In the 289-page judgment, the high court stated, “The very constitution of ACB by the government is to shield the corrupt politicians, ministers, and the officers from the watchful eyes of the Lokayukta and that government is weakening the institution of Lokayukta to protect these persons from prosecution, inter alia under the provisions of the Prevention of Corruption Act.”
The court also noted that the Karnataka Lokayukta Act was enacted for the purpose of improving standards of public administration, by looking into complaints against administrative actions, including cases of corruption, favouritism and official indiscipline within the administrative machinery. However, the same was made “paper tigers without any teeth and claws” in the executive order passed in 2016.
While Lokayukta was an independent agency headed by a former judge of the high court, which could initiate proceedings against both officials and elected representatives, the ACB could never aspire to initiate action against the corrupt as it is headed by a police officer drawn from the state police which is under the state Home department. The Lokayukta was made toothless by withdrawing the investigative powers of the Lokayukta police granted under the PC Act. This was challenged by Advocates’ Association of Bangalore, Dharwad-based NGO Samaj Parivarthana Samudaya and others.
The Court also noted that the ACB had not registered any criminal cases against the Ministers, Members of Parliament, Members of Legislative Assembly or Members of the Legislative Council, and had only registered a few cases against some authorities and conducted raids.
The court’s apprehensions are not unfounded as ACB, which was set up during the Siddaramaiah government and vehemently opposed by both the BJP and the JDS, has a poor record in bringing the corrupt to justice.
As per the ACB’s records, it has registered 1,803 cases since its inception in 2016, chargesheets have been filed in 753 cases and 682 cases are under trial. The ACB managed to get conviction in only 10 cases, and in 25 cases the accused were acquitted.
Interestingly, none of the political parties seemed keen to restore the powers of the Lokayukta and scrap the ACB, a parallel body set up by the Congress government led by Siddaramaiah. While the BJP had promised to scrap the ACB in its poll manifesto in 2018, it did little after assuming power in the state. In fact, the Bommai government, on April 11, 2022, ordered the Director General and Inspector General of Police to withdraw 22 SP and 42 DySP sanctioned posts from the Lokayukta, at a time his government was facing serious allegations of corruption from the state contractors’ association alleging “40 per cent commission” menace in the government departments.
In 2011, the Lokayukta report on illegal mining led to then chief minister B.S.Yediyurappa stepping down from his post, and the opposition Congress which made it the election issue and marched from Ballari to Bengaluru managed to sweep the 2013 polls. Ironically, the Congress government did not act on the Lokayukta report that had implicated three chief ministers, eight ministers and more than 100 officers including the IAS and IPS officers. Instead, the ACB was constituted to curtail the powers of the Lokayukta.
While former Lokayuktas Justice Santosh Hegde and P.Vishwanath Shetty welcomed the court decision stating the court had responded to the people’s long pending demand. They also hoped to see honest persons being appointed to the Lokayukta to curb corruption. But the politicians did not seem enthused with the court verdict.
Former chief minister Siddaramaiah said, “It is not a revival of Lokayukta as it always existed. My government had only separated the police powers of the Lokayukta and transferred it to ACB (a new agency created through an executive order). ACB was also an independent body and it is there not only in Karnataka but in several other states. The court has only said that ACB should be part of Lokayukta and not be an independent entity. The high court has given a ruling and I honour that verdict. I am yet to go through the order in detail.”
JDS leader and former chief minister H.D.Kumaraswamy said, “ACB is abolished but I have no hope that they can curb corruption through Lokayukta. First, let them clean up the third floor of the Vidhana Soudha.” Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai too refused to elaborate on the court order and sought time to study the order and seek legal opinion.
Ravi Krishna Reddy, president of Karnataka Arshtra Samiti hailed the court verdict for abolishing the ACB and said that the six-year-long battle against the “anti-people” decision of the Siddaramaiah government of setting up the ACB had yielded results.
“I congratulate social activist S.R.Hiremath for relentlessly fighting a legal battle against the ACB. A people’s protest at Freedom Park in 2016 compelled the BJP and JDS to support our demand. But none of the parties empowered the Lokayukta and instead encouraged corruption in the government by patronising ACB. The government appointed a corrupt person like Bhaskar Rao to head Lokayukta to degrade the institution that had built credibility during the stint of Justice Hegde and Justice Venkatachala. Fortunately, the High Court has today abolished ACB and ordered re-establishing the Lokayukta in the state,” said Reddy.