As the anti-corruption crusade continues in the country, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Friday admitted that the agitation for establishment of a Lokpal has brought the issue of clean governance “right at the top of the agenda of our national priorities.”

Delivering the inaugural address at the 18th Biennial Conference of CBI and State Anti-Corruption Bureaux, Dr. Singh said the government was considering changing the laws to criminalise bribery in the private sector.

“We have introduced a Bill in Parliament to make bribery of foreign public officials an offence. Another Bill has been introduced in Parliament to provide protection to whistle-blowers. The Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill has also been introduced in Parliament,” he said.

The Prime Minister expressed the hope that a strong and effective Lokpal would be established in the coming months. “Whatever be the structure and functions of the Lokpal when it is established, the CBI, as our premier investigating agency, will continue to play a very important role in our efforts for ensuring probity in public life,” he told the delegates.

Pointing out that the churning at present over the issue of cleaning up public life was good for the country, he said it was also marked by sharp differences of opinion. “Today, the tasks of ensuring transparency and accountability in the work of public authorities and of building effective mechanisms for punishing those who indulge in corrupt practices and protecting those who seek to expose wrongdoings have acquired an urgency as never before. I believe that we as a nation should seize this moment,'' he said.

The Prime Minister asserted that the country should not and could not afford to tolerate a malaise that “hurts our economic growth, harms our polity, alienates our people, breeds an amount of cynicism, lowers our image internationally and is particularly harsh on the poor.”

He said the Right to Information Act that was enforced six years ago remained a “potent tool in ensuring transparency and accountability in our public life.” He emphasised that public authorities should voluntarily place as much information as possible in the public domain.

On the government's recent anti-corruption initiatives, Dr. Singh said India ratified the United Nations Convention Against Corruption in June 2011. “This will strengthen our anti-corruption efforts and facilitate international cooperation in trans-border cases of corruption. To meet the requirements of the Convention, we have introduced a Bill in Parliament to make bribery of foreign public officials an offence,” he said.

The Prime Minister said the government had recently decided in principle to prescribe a three-month deadline to decide on investigating agencies' request for sanction to prosecute public servants.

“In fact, this deadline would also apply to requests for permission for investigation by the CBI. We have also decided that if an authority refuses to grant permission for investigation or sanction for prosecution, the next higher authority would have to be informed of the reasons for such denial. Delay in the trial of cases remains an area of serious public concern,” he said.

To reduce pendency of CBI cases under trial, Dr. Singh said the government had decided to set up a committee under a retired Supreme Court judge to review cases pending trial, which were more than 10 years old and suggest ways and means for their speedy disposal. He said the government had already sanctioned 71 Special Courts for CBI to fast track trial of cases charge-sheeted by the CBI.

Though the Prime Minister recounted the anti-corruption steps taken by the government, he admitted that whatever “we might do to minimise the opportunities for corruption, the sad reality is that we cannot build a totally foolproof system.”

He said there would always be some instances of corrupt practices in the work of public authorities. “And, therefore, there is a need for speedy and thorough investigation into allegations of such wrongdoings, followed by expeditious prosecution to bring the guilty to book.”

While lauding the CBI's standards and benchmarks for investigation which other agencies follow, Dr. Singh had a word of advice to the premier investigation agency. “Premature publicity given to cases under investigation can harm the cause of justice. We must also not forget the distinction between a deliberate attempt at wrongdoing and honest mistakes, sometimes inevitable in decision-making processes under conditions of uncertainty,” he said.

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