The Karnataka High Court on Thursday, 11 August, abolished the state Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB).
After the judgement, the state government appears a bit confused.
While Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai on Friday said after a cabinet meeting that “the abolition of the ACB was informally discussed in the meeting. We will abide by the order”, the state’s Law Minister JC Madhuswamy said the order would be studied thoroughly to arrive at a decision.
Amidst the indecisive stand of the state government, the ACB’s formation, functioning and alleged non-committal approach stand as testimony to its controversial tenure.
The political executive enjoyed full control over the ACB — meant to take on corruption cases in the state — but it lacked the intent to stifle corrupt activities, according to anti-corruption activists.
Formation of the ACB
Karnataka ACB came into existence on 14 March, 2016 under the chief ministership of the Congress’ Siddaramaiah. With the setting up of the ABC, the state government virtually took away all powers of the Lokayukta police to investigate corruption cases against bureaucrats and politicians.
The ACB functioned under the administrative control of the Department of Personnel & Administrative Reforms (DPAR) headed by an additional director general of who would report to the chief minister.
A couple of instances are thought to have prompted the formation of ACB in Karnataka.
One was alleged involvement of politicians in the Ballari illegal mining case.
The then Karnataka Lokayukta, headed by Justice Santosh Hegde, had named three chief ministers across three political parties — the BJP’s BS Yediyurappa, , the Congress’ N Dharam Singh, and HD Kumaraswamy of the JD(S) — besides six ministers, many MLAs, and more than 150 government officers, including those of the IAS and IPS, in the case.
Multiple cases against then chief minister Siddaramaiah were also pending before the Lokayukta. And Yediyurappa had to go to jail as a direct consequence of the Lokayukta report on illegal mining.
Interestingly, Siddaramaiah, while in the opposition, marched from Bengaluru to Ballari against illegal mining and had praised the action of the Lokayukta in the case.
Then an incident in December 2015 turned things topsy turvy. The then Karnataka Lokayukta Justice Y Bhaskar Rao had to step down after his son Ashwin Rao was arrested on charges of running an extortion racket from the Lokayukta’s offices.
This became one of the reasons for the downsizing of the state Lokayukta and the establishment of a parallel wing with the same set of powers, but under the supervision of the chief minister. In contrast, the Lokayukta is an autonomous body.
The Siddaramaiah government defended the move to set up the ACB by insisting that similar outfits were active in 15 states of the country.
Farcical working of the ACB?
The ACB came into existence as a unit of the state’s police department. A deputy superintendent of police (DSP) headed the ACB police station.
The chief minister had a veto on the sanction of prosecution, while the ACB did not have any autonomous authority to question the government in power.
An April 2022 Indian Express report noted that the Karnataka government has not, since 2017, provided sanctions for prosecution in 223 cases of corruption registered and investigated by the ACB, exposing the farcical functioning of the anti-corruption body.
The ACB was supposed to enforce the provisions of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988. And according to the Act, unless there was government sanction, the court could not proceed to prosecute any public servant accused of corruption.
Little wonder, between March 2016 and March 2022, the ACB registered more than 2,000 cases but ended up with only 19 convictions.
Chief Minister BS Bommai revealed on the floor of Legislative Council in April 2022 that 72 percent of the corruption cases under the ACB were not sanctioned for prosecution by the government.
The ACB, in the recent past, had acted against only one big public servant — IAS officer J Manjunath, the former deputy commissioner of Bengaluru Urban.
Petitioner that took on the ACB
The Karnataka High Court’s order scrapping the ACB has been welcomed by 78-year-old social activist SR Hiremath, who, in 2016, had filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) challenging the government order constituting the ACB.
Hiremath told South First, “The High Court abolishing the Anti-Corruption Bureau is undoing the wrong done to the Lokayukta by clipping its power. It is a remarkable judgement for the people and the state.”
According to Hiremath, forming the ACB by compromising the power of the Lokayukta was a great betrayal of the people.
“Any appointment to the ACB happened after approval by the incumbent government and the chief minister, making it prone to political intervention. The Lokayukta was an independent institution that scared politicians across parties.”
While stressing the need to challenge the ACB, the activist added, “The Lokayukta emerged as saviour of the common people by exposing the horrific layers of corruption in different parts of the state. Its dilution was unacceptable as a citizen.”
The activist holds former chief minister Siddaramaiah responsible for damaging the credibility of the Lokayukta.
Hiremath is part of a group named, Samaj Parivartana Samudaya which has remained active on socio-political issues and became one of the key petitioners challenging the state government order forming the ACB.
He was also the whistleblower who exposed the illegal mining in Ballari.