Parliament approves landmark Lokpal bill as elections near

NEW DELHI Tue Dec 17, 2013 8:08pm IST

School children arrive to watch the proceedings of parliament in New Delhi December 7, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer

School children arrive to watch the proceedings of parliament in New Delhi December 7, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Parliament voted on Tuesday for the appointment of a powerful anti-graft ombudsman to investigate wrongdoing in government, ending years of dithering, as public anger has mounted over a string of corruption scandals.

The Congress party, which suffered big losses in state elections over the past month in part over allegations of a pervasive culture of corruption, rushed through the Lokpal or ombudsman bill in the Rajya Sabha.

"We must listen to the voices outside the House. I hope that the bill creates history," said Law Minister Kapil Sibal after the bill was cleared by a voice vote.

It will now go to the Lok Sabha for final passage on Wednesday.

India is due to hold a national election by next May, and corruption and clean governance are expected to be top campaign issues.

Under the new law, the prime minister's office and all top government servants and departments will come under the purview of the ombudsman.

The bill's progress came as anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare continued his hunger strike for an eighth day on Tuesday to put pressure on politicians to act on the measure that was proposed 46 years ago.

He told cheering supporters gathered at his village in western Maharashtra that he was happy political parties had finally agreed on the measure to combat corruption, but he would wait for the final passage of the bill on Wednesday.

Hazare's fast in 2011 and massive public protests forced the government to introduce the legislation in parliament.

An associate of Hazare's later set up a political group called the Aam Aadmi Party, or the Common Man's Party, that finished second in a stunning debut in elections to the Delhi assembly this month, underlining public support for more accountability in governance.

"The bill is the result of the government realising which way the wind was blowing on corruption," said Arun Jaitley, a leader of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.

Only the regional Samajwadi Party opposed the bill on Tuesday saying it would further paralyse government decision-making as officials would be too scared to take decisions for fear of investigation.

The ombudsman will be appointed by an independent committee comprising the prime minister, the head of the Supreme Court, the leader of the opposition and an eminent jurist.

India has existing laws to tackle corruption but civil rights activists have argued that these are not enough in the light of the large number and scale of scandals in one of the world's fastest-growing economies.

India is ranked 94th in a list of 177 countries on Transparency International's 2013 global corruption index, rated as worse than China, South Africa and Brazil in terms of graft.

(Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani and Nigam Prusty; Editing by Pravin Char)

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