Monday, April 11, 2011

When the media gets hold of a cause

By Sreelatha Menon
Lok Pal may be the first step towards the formation of new institutions, as the old ones get ineffective
Sreelatha Menon / New Delhi April 10, 2011, 0:57 IST

Recently, Pappu Yadav, former member of parliament, went on a fast-unto-death in a Patna jail to show support for Anna Hazare’s fast against corruption. Yadav, who faces murder charges, demanded that corruption be weeded out of society.

The case of television channels vying with each other to support the “people’s movement” against corruption is also similar to Yadav’s impulse to show support for a cause.

Incidentally, the media did not lose a wink of sleep when Lepchas were fasting in Sikkim against the taking over of their sacred valley and rivers by the government-aided private companies to build hydroelectric plants. Later, the courts thwarted this without much assistance of the media.

The media did not lose sleep when last month between March 11 and March 16 in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh’s Koya commandos, the Central Reserve Police Force and CoBRA battalions burnt more than 300 houses, raped five adivasi women and killed five men in Timapuram, Morpalli and Tarmetla villages of Dantewada, accusing them of being Naxalites (even Naxals don’t deserve to be raped and killed). It also never raised the plight of missing persons in Kashmir whose court cases are stuck in the home ministry for want of permission to proceed against officers.

Anyway, with or without the patronage of the media, the masses are angry with politicians and sooner or later they would get wise enough to get angry with the media too, for taking a stand only when it suits them.

Meanwhile, the achievements of the people who backed Hazare have been substantial. They have got a gazette notifying a joint committee, including people’s representatives to draft a Bill against corruption. Also, the Bill once passed, would guarantee quick action against the corrupt.

People have embraced these remedies following a total loss of faith in the governance system, comprising elected people and selected bureaucrats.

While there is no guarantee that vested interests won’t creep into these joint committees, there is an advantage in the presence of activists who have an expertise in the law of a particular subject. For instance, the seed bill now in Parliament, if drafted in partnership with farmer groups would have provided an outcome that would have helped the farmers rather than the seed industry, as it is feared to do now.

What the Lok Pal promises is a short cut to justice. For public servants (such as the government employees, judges, armed forces, and members of Parliament) can also be prosecuted for corruption under the Indian Penal Code, 1860, and the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988. However, these require the investigating agency (such as the CBI) to get prior sanction of the central or state government before it can initiate the prosecution process.

Lawyers wonder if an all-powerful Lok Pal would endanger democracy. For instance, now the judiciary and legislature keep a check on each other, but once the Lok Pal comes with powers to try government members and judges, it would be putting too many powers in one basket. Says lawyer Sanjay Parikh: A system has to be in place to ensure that the cure does not become worse than the disease. Also, the Lok Pal cannot break the nexus between the government and the private sector and restore the trust of the people.

However, an ombudsman like God, is an attractive idea and as decades would go by, there may exist one for each sector, for example for real estate (drafted by home dwellers rather than the real estate companies), one for educational institutions, one for health institutions, one for labour rights, etc. The lesson to be learnt is that new institutions would replace the old, if the latter don’t prove effective and accessible to the people.