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India passes new anti-corruption bill

New ombudsman will have power to probe senior figures

India passes new anti-corruption bill

Supporters of the anti-corruption bill attend a rally in Maharashtra state in mid-December

By Swati Deb, New Delhi

December 19, 2013

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India’s lower house passed a new anti-corruption bill on Wednesday that would allow the setting up of an independent ombudsman with powers to prosecute top politicians and civil servants.

All public officials, including the prime minister, would be subject to investigation when the so-called Lokpal bill becomes law. The bill, passed by the upper house on Tuesday, now awaits the president’s signature.

Once enacted the Lokpal Act would establish an independent agency that will have the power to utilize the existing investigation agencies to probe corruption cases.

India's government has suffered a spate of high-profile corruption scandals in recent years, including accusations of selling telecom licenses at cheap rates which allegedly cost the state billions of dollars.    

Anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare, who led a long-running campaign for the law, ended a nine-day hunger strike after the lower house vote. While hailing the passage of the bill, Hazare questioned whether the bill alone could curb corruption.

“It needs to be seen that there is proper implementation,” he said.

The bill was first introduced in 2011, but went through a number of revisions following recommendations from a parliamentary committee.

Hazare at the time said these recommendations did not go far enough and demanded that the ombudsman be independent. 

By now allowing the appointment of an independent ombudsman, the federal government says the law will provide for a more thorough investigation of government malfeasance.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the legislation as "historic".

However, Mulayam Singh Yadav, leader of the regional Samajwadi Party, criticized the bill, saying it would deter ministers and bureaucrats from making decisions for fear of investigation. He and other party members walked out of the lower house in protest.

Ramvilas Paswan, president of the Lok Janshakti Party, was also a critic.

"As it is, the Indian political system often brings in stagnancy and indecisiveness on the part of higher bureaucracy. This bill will further enhance the level of indecisiveness," he said.

Rahul Gandhi, vice president of the Congress Party which heads the ruling coalition, welcomed the bill's passage but said more has to be done to root out graft.  

"[The bill] is necessary to strengthen the fight against corruption … but the bill alone is not adequate,” he said.

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