Presidential assent to Lok Ayukta Act amendment weakens anti-corruption fight in Kerala

Since the Kerala amendment aligns with the Union Lokpal and Lok Ayukta definition, a Supreme Court lawyer suggests that the President might have given assent so that the Union government does not face tough questions before the Supreme Court.

WHEN President Droupadi Murmu of India granted assent to the Kerala Lok Ayukta Act amendment, which empowers the Kerala chief minister and speaker to wield the final authority in corruption probes, it dealt a significant blow to the common man.

In August 2022, the Kerala government amended the 1999 Kerala Lok Ayukta Act, stripping the governor of the authority to have the final say on corruption allegations against the chief minister, his ministers and legislative members. 

Despite the governor’s refusal to sign the Bill, the Supreme Court intervened, leading him to forward it to the President. Subsequently, the President has given assent, resulting in a scenario where the chief minister will now wield the final authority in a corruption case against himself and his ministers, while the speaker will hold the decisive power in corruption cases involving legislative members.

Now, the Kerala chief minister has the authority to make decisions regarding a Lok Ayukta case filed against him concerning non-prioritised spending of the Chief Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund.

Additionally, he also holds the power to adjudicate on a case involving his health minister, K.K. Shailaja, from the previous administration related to the ‘scam’ in Covid vaccine purchases.

Downgraded Act

Meanwhile, legal experts, a senior police officer in Kerala, and a petitioner who is fighting a case against the chief minister using Lok Ayukta, say that the President’s assent will weaken the fight against corruption.

Talking to The Leaflet, Prashant Padmanabhan, a Supreme Court lawyer, said that this assent has weakened the Lok Ayukta. 

Now what has happened here is the violation of nemo judex in causa sua, the principle of natural justice, which means that no one should be a judge in his own cause. In other words, no person can judge a case in which he has an interest,” Prashant said.

The assent gives power for the chief minister to judge his own cases, which shouldn’t happen,” Prashant added.

When questioned about the President’s approval of the amendment, Prashant pointed out that Section 2(c)(i) of the The Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013, mentions “competent authority” as the House of the People (Lok Sabha) in the case of the Prime Minister.

This means that the House, where the Prime Minister always holds a majority, ultimately decides on such matters. Since the Kerala amendment aligns with this definition, Prashant suggested that the President might have given assent so that the Union government would not face tough questions before the Supreme Court.

Abhilash M.R., another Supreme Court lawyer, told The Leaflet that the assent has downgraded the Kerala Lok Ayukta Act to the level of the Central Lok Ayukta Act.

We had pride in having a strong Lok Ayukta Act. Now, it is lost,” he said.

While the Kerala government views the President’s assent as a victory, state law minister P. Rajeeve has criticised Kerala governor Arif Mohammed Khan. The governor, in turn, posted a list of Bills that have not received assent from the President.

According to a note uploaded on X, formerly Twitter, Arif stated that out of the seven Bills sent to Rashtrapati Bhavan, assent has been given only for the Lok Ayukta Amendment Bill.

Legal fight

Meanwhile, talking to The Leaflet, petitioner R.S. Sasikumar, said that the assent disappoints anti-corruption fighters like him and he will be continuing his fight against chief minister’s corruption in which Lok Ayukta is also a respondent.

Sasikumar has approached the Kerala High Court challenging the Order of the three-judge Lok Ayukta Bench which rejected his claim that the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund was diverted.

The petitioner has sought to strike down the verdict as illegal. Sasikumar had earlier said he would file an appeal against the Lok Ayukta verdict in the high court.

On November 13, 2023, the Lok Ayukta Bench rejected the petition citing that the chief minister has the authority to allocate the funds and that there was no evidence of the ministers having engaged in corruption or nepotism.

Sasikumar had filed the plea against the chief minister, his chief secretary and 18 ministers of the first Pinarayi government, alleging corruption and abuse of power.

According to Sasikumar’s petition, money was given from the Chief Minister Disaster Relief Fund to the families of three persons who were close to the government and the ruling party, the CPM, violating the norms for aid distribution.

The first petition questions the granting of ₹25 lakh from the Chief Minister Disaster Relief Fund for the education of Uzhavoor Vijayan’s daughter. Uzahvoor Vijayan was a Nationalist Congress Party leader and a close associate of the Left Front in the state. He died in 2017.

Another petition is against spending from the Chief Minister Disaster Relief Fund of ₹8 lakh to take back mortgaged gold belonging to K.K. Ramachandran Nair and ₹6 lakh to repay his car loan. Ramachandran was a Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM) legislator. The amount was advanced following his death in 2018.

The third petition is against granting ₹20 lakh from the Chief Minister Disaster Relief Fund to the family of a policeman who died in an accident while escorting the CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan.

Regrettably, a senior police officer in Kerala, speaking to The Leaflet on the condition of anonymity, said that weakening the Act through this assent is poised to impact the common man’s ability to fight against corruption.

The Kerala Lok Ayukta Act previously had a broader definition of a public servant, encompassing political party district-level office bearers, registered trade union district leaders and the management of private schools or colleges receiving government aid or operating under government rules. This definition remains unchanged. However, with crucial amendments being made, the concern is that the common man may now lose trust and confidence in the Lok Ayukta,” the police officer said.

Recently, corruption has been rampant in Kerala. Even political party leaders at the district level are involved in murky deals. Instead of strengthening anti-corruption laws, unfortunately, Kerala has weakened them,” the officer added.

In 2020, Kerala withdrew the consent granted to the Central Bureau of Investigation to initiate a probe voluntarily.

The Pinarayi government also made amendments to the Kerala Vigilance Act, requiring vigilance officials to obtain government permission to initiate a probe.

Furthermore, the Comptroller and Auditor General’s office faced restrictions from entering various projects in Kerala. Now, the President’s assent weakens Lok Ayukta, disappointing anti-corruption fighters in Kerala.