J&K is ‘celebrating’ 2011 as anti-corruption year, but the headless State Accountability Commission is mocking at the symbolism of India’s second most corrupt state. Set up to tackle corruption at high places, the commission was grounded well before its takeoff. R S Gull reports
In September 2004, after more than a year long hunt to find the chairman of the State Accountability Commission (SAC) that his government created, the then Law Minister Muzaffar Hussain Beig said it has not been an easy task. “We were categorically told that the (Supreme Court) judges (who were) approached (by High Court) expressed reluctance saying that since politicians in J&K are corrupt they will hatch conspiracies with the militants and kill the judges opting for heading the proposed commission (SAC).”
The government later amended the law governing the SAC so that even retired chief justices of High Courts can head the public service integrity watchdog. In the original law the SAC was supposed to be headed by a former apex court judge. “It was with great difficulty that the government finally persuaded the judges and drafted a penal,” he said. Almost a year later the SAC got a boss.
In August 2005, justice (retd) R P Sethi, one of the state’s illustrious jurists, was appointed as SAC’s maiden chairman. It marked the commission’s functional beginning and for around half a year the SAC would create news, trigger debates and indicate it could be a vibrant institution. But less than a year later, on May 4, 2006 Justice Sethi put in his papers, when the circumstances were bizarre within and outside the SAC. It marked unmaking of an institution. Beig got vindicated though his script lacked the insurgent angle that judges had talked about.
Justice Ram Prakash Sethi has remained a respected jurist. Born on July 7, 1937 in Mirpur, Pakistan Administered Kashmir, Sethi graduated from Jammu & Kashmir University in 1959, did his bachelors in law from Aligarh Muslim University in 1961 and soon started practice. Sethi was Special Public Prosecutor in the cases under the Enemy Agents Ordinance and was later elevated to Additional Advocate General of the state in 1976. At one point of time, he was standing counsel for the central government in J&K as well.
In May 1986, he was appointed as additional judge and was confirmed as a permanent judge in August 1987. In October 1993 he was transferred to Punjab and Haryana High court and in June 1996 he took over as chief justice of Karnataka High Court. In January 1999 he was appointed as a judge in the Supreme Court wherefrom he retired on July 2002. During his 41-year career, he has authored many books and some of them such as The Hindu Marriage Act, and another on civil procedure code are still a lawyer’s reference. Sethi’s appointment as chairman of the SAC was a major event in the state. But situation forced him to put in his papers.
He stopped going to office in March and two months later put in his papers. Barring that there were “differences” with the government, nothing much is known about the contents of the resignation letter which he sent to the then governor S K Sinha.
Apparently while pursuing a case taken up suo moto, the SAC in October 2005 stumbled on certain evidences suggesting that a casual approach of the then Rural Development Minister Peerzada M Sayeed had led to certain financial losses to the state exchequer. It involved the electrification of the panchayat-ghars (village council offices) across J&K that was simultaneously being probed by the State Vigilance Organisation (SVO).
The Eleventh Finance Commission had awarded funds for creating basic facilities in the Panchayat-ghars. After a committee recommended that every panchayat-ghar would require Rs 70,000 for electrification, contracts were awarded for a total of 469 structures in Budgam, Islamabad and Baramulla involving a total of Rs 3.28 crore.
Acting on a complaint, later, SVO found that the project was a scam. The organisation that investigated the racket in Islamabad (163 structures) and Baramulla (208) found that a huge amount was embezzled. Low cost, substandard ceiling fans were shown to have been purchased at high rates. Even electrification bills were drawn for places where there were no structures. Asgar Ali, the then director Rural Development Department– now a PDP leader in Kishtwar – was arrested for a week and was placed under suspension as well.
Since the project was for the entire state, the SAC took up the rest of the districts where this project was implemented. After initial investigations established embezzlement, SAC sent cases to two DIG rank officers for investigating it. One DIG who probed the case in Budgam told SAC that Rs 45 lakh stands embezzled on account of 98 structures. In Srinagar district it was over Rs 2.50 lakh. Another DIG was probing the scam in Jammu.
Well before these reports could help SAC make its case, a sting operation grabbed headlines when one of the accused Mushtaq Ahmad Ganai caught SAC Chairman’s Additional Advocate General son Anil Sethi on camera, taking bribe (in a Srinagar hotel on October 30, 2005) for influencing SAC’s decision on the case. Ganai rushed to the High Court with the CD on November 12, 2005 and filed a PIL as video footage was distributed to media. He demanded security for himself and said that he was not expecting any justice from SAC.
It had an immediate impact. Anil Sethi was sacked as additional advocate general within 24 hours. Sethi Senior was apparently frustrated as his integrity was questioned at the end of his career.
“I am at the crossroad of my life where I have to decide whether I come to the expectation of the faith reposed in me by millions of people of the state or I directly or indirectly defend my son who is reported to be involved in this conspiracy. I have decided to take such an action which no father might have taken in the living memory in the interest of the institution of the Commission,” a highly disturbed SAC Chairman told a Jammu newspaper. Accusing Peerzada of orchestrating it, Sethi termed the sting operation as “conspiracy” to make SAC non-functional and directed the state police chief to register a criminal case against his son.
His statement was well received. NC and BJP – the then opposition, reacted fiercely. The minister, the then NC president Omar Abdullah said, was indicted by no less a person than the chairman of all important SAC. “Propriety demands that he should voluntarily step down as a minister,” Omar suggested, adding, “In case he fails to do so, the Chief Minister should immediately dismiss him.” This, he said, is a test case for the Chief Minister (Ghulam Nabi Azad).
But nobody resigned. Sethi Sr diverted his full attention to the case. A formal notice was issued to Peerzada as Sethi publicly accused him of being ‘fully involved’ in the scam. There was a lull and on March 31, 2006, Congress heaved a sigh of relief when Peerzada, was absolved of corruption charges in another unrelated case. It was mistaken as the same case and question were rasied over the credibility of SAC. Two months later Sethi resigned. Seven months later Sethi had a cardiac arrest and died in PGI hospital Chandigarh. He was 70.
A PDP brainchild, SAC was one of the few things that Mufti Sayeed rushed to do after becoming J&K’s top executive. Three years later when Sethi took over he called it a powerful institution. “We would work like the high court and we are not like an enquiry commission,” he told reporters in September 2005.
Initially, it was supposed to be a single member commission and Sethi agreed to take over only after he got assurances that he has to run the show. But a pro-active chairman’s suo moto actions irked the government which decided to change the rules. While two more judges were taken as members, the mandatory requirement of the chairman being a former apex court judge was done away with. The two members that were nominated to the SAC were retired Justices Girdhari Lal Raina and Muzaffar Jan. After Sethi resigned, Raina donned the mantle of SAC’s acting chairman. He retired in 2008 and Jan superannuated in October 2009. The SAC has been headless since then.
SAC, however, continued with its “clerical” practice. It would accept complaints, register cases, issue summons and in certain cases make suggestions and recommendations to the government. In certain cases, it did investigate cases and came to conclusions also.
In the case of Abdul Majid Wani, one of Chenab Valley’s most prominent businessman, who is representing Doda in the assembly for the second term, a Jammu newspaper (April 30, 2011) reported that SAC investigations had established that high-ranking State Forest Corporation (SFC) officials fraudulently issued a no objection certificate (NOC) to him in 2002, enabling him to run for the elections.
“During the course of inquiry, it was established that Roop Lal Bharti, who was MD SFC in 2002, FA and CAO Janak Singh and Deputy Financial Advisor (DFA) Sant Ram, with the connivance of SFC contractor Abdul Majid Wani, accorded approval/concurrence for a false document of NOC in his (Wani’s) favour and got it signed by GM (Adm) Asgar Anayatullah.
By doing so, they are not only involved in the preparation of a false NoC but cheated the state government and Election Commission too as a huge liability of Rs 1.77 crore had already been established against Wani by the District and Sessions Judge,” quoting the report submitted by the DIG Gulzar Singh Slathia to SAC, the newspaper reported.
Wani, the newspaper said, needed NOC for his eligibility to file nomination papers as a candidate from Doda assembly segment in 2002. “Without it, he could not have been permitted by the Doda Returning Officer to contest polls,” it added.
= At one point of time, the SAC would, on an average, receive four complaints a day. As nothing happened on ground, the complaints dried up. Even then there were 309 complaints of corruption against present and former ministers, sitting and ex-MLAs and bureaucrats pending before the commission by March 2011. Placing on record a 72-page document, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah informed the state legislature that complaints were about corruption, misuse of power, bribes, misappropriation, bungling and illegal appointments. These complaints – 221 in Jammu and 88 in Srinagar – were piled up between September 2005 and January 2011.
Apart from politicians, cases are pending against IAS, IPS, IFS and KAS officers, former Vice-Chancellors of universities, a former chairman of J&K Bank, former Chief Engineers and a former Director General of Police. Until the last member left the SAC, even after that, sources in SAC suggested, communications recommending or suggesting action were regularly sent to the government.
The SAC has made recommendations to the government suggesting specific actions and in case of some officials, even termination of services or forfeiture of pensions. But successive governments have rarely acted. Invariably the accused get the proceedings stayed. So far SAC has sent 20 cases to the government recommending prosecution and in 11 cases involving the “biggies”, proceedings have been stayed by the High Court.
The previous government sent a number of officers on ‘forced’ retirement. Under the law any government official who has put in 22 years of service or has attained an age of 48 years could be retired ‘forcibly’. Ghulam Nabi Azad used this law to show door to ten officials following his predecessor Mufti Sayeed who forcibly retired over 50 officials. Last week, chief secretary Madhav Lal told administrative secretaries to identify the ‘dead wood’ (read corrupt) so that they go home at the earliest.
The government in-action has shrunken an institution that many thought could have played a game-changer in offering a clean administration in a pervasively corrupt state.
The SAC’s Srinagar office in Sonawar reveals the level and contours of its paralysis. Its four-storey hired premises hardly sees any activity. All the rooms in the two lower floors are locked and life exists only in the third floor with an accounts officer, a section officer and a few orderlies. Nobody is willing to talk as they say they have nothing to say. On the notice board is a notice issued by Deputy Registrar Ms Anjum Wani on April 25 announcing that “the quorum of the commission has not been constituted (so the) complaints fixed at Srinagar Wing of the Commission from 25-4-2011 to 28-4-2011 are adjourned and shall now be taken up by the Hon’ble Commission on the dates mentioned below….”
“Go and see if the main door is open or otherwise they will click a locked door as they did in Jammu,” suggested one official to another. Within minutes, the entire “Commission” including cops were out ensuring the photographer did not click anything awkward. One of the officials called the deputy registrar and handed over the phone to KashmirLife. She gave the phone number of the secretary Ms Anita Koul who holds SACs fort in Jammu.
“We are hopeful of an early constitution of the commission,” Ms Koul said over phone advising KashmirLife to “be positive”. She said people are approaching with complaints though not in the numbers they used to come when the court was functional. “We are routinely doing what we are supposed to, issuing cause list and revising them,” she said, adding, “we are following the mandate that falls in our domain but all powers are with the commission.”
Even in its Jammu Wing, SAC existence is symbolic. Ms Koul keeps the office open along with a few officials. Most of the rooms are usually locked. The official car meant for SAC chairperson is rusting inside its premises, a Jammu newspaper reported. In November last, even the High Court had suggested to the state government either to make SAC functional or wind it up.
Given the amended rules, the SAC does not require a retired apex court judge. Even a retired high court judge can fill the vacant berth of the chairman and the two members. Right now, there are five judges who are eligible to becoming SAC chairman. Newspaper reports suggest there are 17 others who could be appointed as members. Under the amended rules any former or serving apex court judge or a chief justice of High Court can become SAC chairman and any judge – serving or retired – of the Supreme Court or high court can become a member as long as they are below 70 years of age.
Right now J&K has three former judges who have retired as High Court Chief Justices -Justice Vinod Gupta (Jharkhand High Court), Justice Bilal Nazki (Orissa) and Justice Bashir Ahmed Khan (J&K). Retired Justices Bashir Ahmed Kirmani and Y P Nargotra are eligible for SAC members’ post. Justices Pramod Kohli (Punjab and Haryana High Court) and Hakim Imtiaz Hussain are retiring in July.
A Jammu newspaper, however, has reported that “Government seems to be waiting for superannuation of Mr Justice Nisar Ahmed Kakroo who is scheduled to retire as Chief Justice of Andhra Pradesh High Court at the end of October 2011” because he has “the advantage of being the favourite of not only the ruling National Conference (NC) but also both factions of the state Congress.” Interestingly, most of the politicians against whom there are complaints in SAC belong to Congress.