Cabinet drafts Lokpal bill, activists say too weak

NEW DELHI Fri Jul 29, 2011 9:44am IST

Veteran social activist Anna Hazare speaks during a news conference after attending a meeting of the newly-constituted joint committee comprising of ministers and civil society activists to draft an anti-graft law, the Lokpal bill, in New Delhi June 16, 2011. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/Files

Veteran social activist Anna Hazare speaks during a news conference after attending a meeting of the newly-constituted joint committee comprising of ministers and civil society activists to draft an anti-graft law, the Lokpal bill, in New Delhi June 16, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Adnan Abidi/Files

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The cabinet on Thursday finished drafting the Lokpal bill aimed at curbing graft in the government, but activists slammed it saying it was not tough enough to fight widespread corruption which poses a risk to economic growth.

The bill seeks to set up a Lokpal to investigate charges of corruption against ministers and lawmakers, but does not cover the prime minister, judges and bureaucrats.

The bill will need parliamentary approval to become law. It is set to be introduced in parliament next week, Law Minister Salman Khursheed said.

"It has been this government's agenda to bring greater transparency in functioning, this is an example of that," Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni said.

Slamming the bill as too weak because it did not cover the prime minister and judges, Anna Hazare, the social activist whose hunger strike in April forced the government to begin drafting the bill, said he would begin a second fast against corruption, raising the sceptre of a fresh wave of anti-government protests.

"They have not cheated Anna Hazare, they have cheated the country's people," Anna Hazare, an activist whose four-day long fast for the bill in April drew wide support from a public angered by a slew of graft scandals, told Times Now television.

"For this reason I, along with the entire nation, will sit on protest ... till I have no life in my body.

"People have to take this as another battle for independence and take to the streets to fight corruption."

The Bharatiya Janata Party, which has taken on the government over graft, said it did not "appreciate" the non-inclusion of the prime minister in the bill.

Khursheed said bringing a serving prime minister in the Lokpal's remit would affect his ability to work effectively.

He added that the law permitted a probe after the prime minister's term had ended.

"Anyone who challenges this procedure is not challenging the government of the day, is actually challenging the parliament of our country. It is for them to decide if they want to challenge the parliament of our country or not," he said.

India ranks 78 on Transparency International's global list of corruption perceptions and global consultancy KPMG has said graft could stunt the country's economic growth.

Hazare's fast in April had struck a chord with tens of thousands of Indians fed up with a series of corruption scandals in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's second term, which have been linked to members of his government and party.

Last month, yoga guru Swami Ramdev and thousands of his followers staged a mass hunger strike in New Delhi to demand reforms, including the death penalty for corrupt officials. Dozens were injured when the government sent a phalanx of police in with batons and tear gas to break up their peaceful protest.

The corruption charges have eroded Singh's authority, paralysed policymaking, and weighed on India's growth potential.

Two ministers have resigned, one of whom is A. Raja, who faces allegations he caused a loss of $39 billion to the government by rigging the issuance of lucrative 2G telecoms licences.

(Additional reporting by Annie Banerji; writing by C.J. Kuncheria; Editing by James Pomfret and Sugita Katyal)

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