In what may set the stage for another face-off between the Gujarat government and Governor Kamla Beniwal, the State Assembly on Tuesday passed for the second time the Gujarat Lokayukta Aayog Bill, 2013, which was returned by Dr. Beniwal — who had called it a travesty of the institution of the ombudsman — for reconsideration.
The new Bill seeks to replace the existing Gujarat Lokayukta Act, 1986 and empowers the State government with regard to the appointment of the Lokayukta by doing away with the role of the High Court Chief Justice.
In September, Dr. Beniwal had returned the Bill, which was passed by the State Assembly on April 2.
The Governor had, on August 25, 2011, appointed retired judge of the Gujarat High Court R.A. Mehta as the Lokayukta, ignoring the view of Chief Minister Narendra Modi and the Cabinet.
The government then challenged the appointment in the Gujarat High Court, arguing that the Governor could not make the appointment without the State government’s advice.
The government however lost the case, and the Supreme Court too upheld the High Court’s verdict. The government appealed against this twice, but lost.
The State had a Lokayukta till 2003 when the last incumbent retired High Court judge, S.M. Soni, stepped down from his position. Mr. Soni was appointed during Keshubhai Patel’s rule in 1998.
Even after the Supreme Court upheld his appointment, Justice Mehta desisted from charge of the office, citing 23 reasons. The controversy over his appointment, he said, had “denigrated the office of the Lokayukta and it had lost all the grace and dignity.”
Unlike the act in force at present, the Gujarat Lokayukta Aayog Bill, 2013 provided primacy to the Chief Minister, over the Gujarat High Court Chief Justice, in appointing the ombudsman.
The new bill empowers a selection committee chaired by the Chief Minister to appoint the Lokayukta. The panel comprises the Speaker of the Assembly, a Minister, the Leader of Opposition, a High Court Judge to be nominated by the Chief Justice, and the State Vigilance Commissioner.
The bill provides for four ‘Up-Lokayuktas’, unlike the current Act, and has provisions for retirement of the Lokayukta and the ‘Up-Lokayukta’.
The ombudsmen will hold office for the term of five years or till attaining 72 years of age, whichever is earlier. As against the present act that qualifies a retired High Court Judge to assume the office of Lokayukta, the new bill says that “the Lokayukta shall be a person who is or has been a Judge of the Supreme Court of India or Chief Justice of a High Court in a substantive capacity, while the retired High Court Judges will qualify for the position of Up-Lokayukta.”