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6 February 2016 Editorial

 

6 FEBRUARY

The case against Ashok Chavan

When one Governor refuses to accord sanction to prosecute a former Chief Minister  but another, his successor, grants it in the same case, some legal questions are bound to arise. Yet, on an overall assessment of the twists and turns in the Adarsh Cooperative Housing Society scandal in Mumbai, the latest decision of Maharashtra Governor  Ch. VidyasagarRao to allow the prosecution of former Chief Minister Ashok Chavan ought to be welcomed as a positive move towards public accountability. There was an alleged element of quid pro quo in Mr.Chavan’s favourable decisions while in office and the fact that his mother-in-law and the brother of his father-in-law had flats allotted in the society. It is only just and fair that the trial court is given an opportunity to assess the legal consequence of Mr.Chavan’s actions. The earlier refusal of former Governor K. Sankaranarayanan to grant sanction to prosecute Mr.Chavan had derailed the entire case against him, as the Central Bureau of Investigation moved to delete his name from the charge sheet. However, the Special CBI Court declined the request, noting that the charge under the Prevention of Corruption Act does not go away merely because the Governor refused sanction for the offences of cheating and conspiracy. Mr.Chavan has questioned the legality of the CBI approaching the Governor for sanction for a second time after Mr.Sankaranarayanan had gone into the matter and refused it. However, the State government’s advice to the present Governor to accord sanction is based on “new facts”.

The fresh grounds relate to the observations of  the Justice J.A. Patil Commission report which talked of a “nexus established between the acts of Mr. Ashok Chavan and the benefit derived by his close relatives in the form of membership of Adarsh CHS”, and a Bombay High Court order in 2014 upholding the trial court’s refusal to drop his name from the charge sheet. It cannot be forgotten that the entire issue of according sanction to prosecute a public servant for the offences of conspiracy, cheating and forgery is only academic. In 2006, the Supreme Court had laid down that by their very nature such offences do not require prior sanction as they cannot be regarded as having been committed by a public servant in the discharge of official duties. It is surprising that the CBI approached the Governor for sanction in the first place under Section 197 of the Criminal Procedure Code for the offences of conspiracy and cheating. In any case, it could have gone ahead with the prosecution in respect of the Prevention of Corruption Act, which does not require sanction after the accused has demitted office. The idea of shielding public servants from frivolous complaints is the ostensible justification for the sanction provision in law. This technical requirement, however, has more often been a shield for corrupt public servants, especially political leaders. The sooner  this bugbear of legitimate prosecution is abolished, the better it would be for probity in public life.

A jobs scheme that steadied India

It is now a decade since the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme was launched, and it can be said with reasonable assurance that the programme has been largely successful in living up to what it set out to do: provide employment to India’s rural poor and improve their livelihoods.  Sceptics of the spending programme, launched in 2006, had raised concerns that it would be yet another opportunity for middlemen to pocket funds. They had dismissed the argument that the design of MGNREGS as a demand-driven scheme would make it more targeted and less prone to leakage. Ten years on, the sceptics have been largely proved wrong. Yes, the efficiency of implementation of the scheme varies across States, there is a degree of wastage of resources, there is an issue with delayed payments, works undertaken have not held up in some States, and there remains some information asymmetry leading to uneven implementation. Yet, by and large, study after study has found that MGNREGS has served as a source of employment for the poor in distress situations such as drought, crop failures and lean rural employment days. It has helped raise rural wages steadily over time, and in places where it has been implemented well, built rural assets such as irrigation canals and roads have augmented local infrastructure.

Yet, it is also evident now that over the last five years there has been sluggishness in MGNREGS’s implementation. There have been ups and downs in the Central outlay for  the scheme, in terms of allocations as a percentage of overall budget spending and, most importantly, delays in releasing funds to States for wage payments. This has led to a relative slack in demand and consequently a drop in the work hours and even a decline in the average rural wage  rate increases in these years. This is primarily because both the Congress-led UPA in its second term in government and the current BJP-led regime have been less than enthusiastic about the need for the scheme. Indeed, data show that only in the past year has the BJP government come around to realising its utility, even if grudgingly. Prime Minister NarendraModi had remarked last year that his government saw  MGNREGS as a symbol of the failures of the Congress governments, and that after 60 years, it was a travesty that we were “still making people dig holes”. These remarks symbolised, at one level, a flawed understanding of the scheme, and at another, a negative mindset about demand-driven welfarism. It took a distressed agrarian situation with the failure of the rabi crop and less-than-optimal rains for the MGNREGS to get its due, and the proportion of delayed payments was reduced in the first three quarters of 2015-16 from what it was in 2014-15. Even so, the implementation of the scheme has continued to be better in some States as opposed to even drought-hit States. It is clear that there needs to be a better political understanding of the need for and the efficacy of welfarism.


 

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