The design of the Lokayukta leaves a lot to the individual at the helm. It does not support a sustained drive against corruption.
The best case for a Lokpal is to show that the existing Lokayuktas work. And even if they have not performed satisfactorily, an assessment of their performance should inform the design of Lokpal.
An analysis of the cases handled by the Karnataka Lokayukta during 1995-2011 using data obtained through the RTI Act provides such an opportunity. Lokayukta can investigate corruption cases either by traps initiated in response to complaints, or raids conducted on the basis of information collected by the Lokayukta police.
After a raid or trap, the Lokayukta police investigates the case, and if it is unable to find sufficient evidence to prosecute, then it is closed. Otherwise, a request is made to the competent authority to sanction prosecution. If the sanction is granted, the charge sheet is filed for trial.
A section of the civil society is demanding a stringent law to empower Lokpal to pursue cases of corruption on its own. The Karnataka Lokayukta had such power. However, it carried out only 355 suo motu raids, whereas it responded to over 2,259 citizen complaints.
Moreover, the share of raid cases has been decreasing over the years. A comparison of raid and trap cases suggests that one of the most active Lokayuktas is, in fact, primarily driven by citizen complaints. This, in turn, suggests that the institutional incentives for suo motu action seem to lie elsewhere.
impact on performance
Leadership of the Lokayukta is believed to have a significant impact on performance. One way of judging the performance of incumbents is the number of new cases filed during their tenure. About 65 per cent of the cases in our data (consisting of four Lokayuktas) were initiated during the tenure of Lokayukta 2006-11.
Another measure is the number of cases against officials belonging to the highest cadres. Two-thirds of the cases against such officials were initiated during the tenure of the same Lokayukta 2006-11.
A third of the cases against these officials were initiated during President's rule, alerting us to a possible nexus between politicians and higher officials. However, if conviction is the yardstick of performance, then the tenure of the Lokayukta 2001-06 stands out, as two-thirds of the cases in which convictions were secured were either initiated or concluded during this period.
While the above measures give a glimpse of how leadership affects the performance, an important measure of impact of individual styles on institutional performance is the ratio of trap to raid cases filed. The tenure of Lokayukta 2001-06 had an excessive focus on traps.
Given that Lokayuktas are understaffed and underfunded, a department-wise analysis of data maps both the focus of the Lokayukta's work as well as loci of corruption. More than 80 per cent of the cases are related to four essential functions of the government: Local governance, administration (taluk/district office, police, court, tax, land, revenue), welfare, and regulation. Hence, privatisation will not have a major impact on the level of corruption because the bulk of the corruption can be traced to the essential functions of the state.
The question of inclusion of petty officials within the jurisdiction of Lokpal is a contentious issue. Data suggest that about 40 per cent of the officials against whom Lokayukta has proceeded are petty officials. The highest-cadre officials such as IAS, and members of legislature, account for less than 1 per cent of all the cases. Moreover, given that the agency is citizen-complaint driven, it is natural that petty corruption, which directly affects people, would continue to account for the bulk of the agency's workload.
What the data tell us
Of the 3,097 cases investigated, trials could be completed only in 4 per cent cases, leading to a mere 16 convictions. This conviction rate is lower than the rate of similar convictions in India, of 34 to 40 per cent.
Why has one of the most active Lokayuktas failed to secure convictions? Given the poor public image of the government and bureaucracy, it is tempting to believe that in most cases, either sanction for prosecution was not given or the agency failed to complete investigations.
But the data tell a different story. In 80.43 (55.68) per cent of the trap (raid) cases, investigation has been completed. The average age of a trap (raid) case pending investigation is 1.05 (2.11) years.
Of the cases that have been found fit for filing of charges, sanction for prosecution was denied in only two cases. Of all the trap (raid) cases in which sanction was granted, charge sheets were filed in 96.29 (93.55) per cent cases. Trap (raid) cases in which charge sheets are pending are on an average 2.53 (3.40) years old.
The bottleneck lies after this stage. Of the trap (raid) cases in which charge sheets have been filed, 95.68 (97.24) per cent are under trial.
The average age of the trap (raid) cases under trial is 5.08 (7.95) years. Further, of all trap (raid) cases investigated, only 15 (1) have resulted in convictions. The average age of cases at the time of conviction was about 4.2 years.
Past performance of the Lokayukta affects its future. While cases initiated in the last year positively affect cases filed in the current year, the stock of cases accumulated in all previous years negatively affects cases filed.
Official demand depends on Lokayukta, seriousness of the government about corruption, and stability of tenures. Citizen demand for prosecution depends on awareness and empowerment.
Measures of better human development indices negatively impact the number of cases initiated.
‘Size of economy' factor
The size of economy has a U-shaped relationship with the level of corruption measured by number of cases, suggesting that both the most and least developed districts record more cases of corruption.
The former provide more opportunities of extraction whereas the latter receive massive government aid that is easy to siphon off.
To conclude, tackling corruption requires a fundamental restructuring of the core administrative functions of the government, and the criminal legal system, which accounts for almost the entire delay in prosecution of corruption.
At present, the design of Lokayukta leaves a lot to the personality and presents an incentive structure that does not support a sustained drive against corruption.
(P. G. Babu, Vikas Kumar and Poonam Mehra are with the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai, Azim Premji University, Bangalore, and National Institute of Securities Markets, Mumbai, respectively.)