India just passed an anti-corruption bill that offers greater protection to government officials

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  • The Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill was passed by the Lok Sabha on July 24th.
  • Some changes to the act were necessary, such as imposing a fixed timeline of 2 years within which to decide corruption cases and criminalising bribe-givers.
  • However, the bill affords greater protection to government officials by preventing investigating agencies from initiating an inquiry against them independently.

On July 24th, the lower house of Indian Parliament, the Lok Sabha, approved a number of amendments to the Prevention of Corruption Act of 1988, paving the way for the passage of the bill. The upper house had already approved the Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill five days prior.

Some of the changes to the act were long overdue, such as imposing a fixed timeline of 2 years within which to decide corruption cases, criminalising bribe-givers as opposed to just bribe-takers and allowing companies as a whole to be accused. However, a lot of provisions of the act were diluted, especially with respect to the investigation of government officials.

Approval before inquiry

The bill prevents any investigating authority or official from initiating an inquiry into any and all government officials, current or retired, without adequate approvals from a sanctioning authority, which is to be set up by the central government. Prior to the amendment, investigating officials could commence their inquiries independently other than for officials above the rank of Joint Secretary.

This shield extends to all cases other than those in which the official is caught red-handed accepting a bribe. This is not usually what happens at all in most corruption cases. Officials receive payments through offshore banking channels or kickbacks in other ways, such as contract awards to family members or a promotion.

The protection is beneficial in some aspects, such as cases wherein honest loan officers at state-run banks grant loans to companies that eventually default on them. However, it enables senior officials to pass the buck to their subordinates a lot easier, given that they also have immunity from arrest.

The increased protection to government officials could also discourage whistleblowers from coming forward, given that it can take a while for approvals from a sanctioning authority to come.

An additional safeguard provided to government officials concerns the notion of “undue advantage”, which has been added to the definition of a “corrupt public official”. The bill places the burden of proof of “undue advantage” squarely on the investigating authority. Unless it can be proven that the official benefited significantly from the action and that he or she specifically intended to carry out corrupt actions, the case falls apart.

Hence, while the amended Act still criminalises corruption, it makes the conviction in corruption cases for government officials a lot harder.
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