From time to time, people of Assam get a glimpse of the enormous loot going on in various government departments. Unfortutely, many corrupt officials mage to get away; on the rare occasion one such official gets caught, there is much public constertion at the impunity and extent of the loot. Dhemaji DFO Mahat Chandra Talukdar was caught red-handed extorting bribe from truckers whose trucks he had seized. Anti-corruption and vigilance sleuths then seized over Rs 2.5 crore worth cash and 1 kg gold orments from his residences in Dhemaji, Guwahati and lbari. Within Guwahati, he owns four plots in prime locations. Investigators are trying to find out whether he has acquired property outside the State as well. What is damning is the seizure of tiger and deer skins, elephant tusks and other animal parts from his residences. Surely he will find it difficult to explain and wriggle out of this one. Here is a forest official tasked with protection of the State’s forest wealth wherever he was posted. For nearly five years, he was posted at Kaziranga as well, during which time around 90 rhinos are said to have fallen to poachers. So the suspicion rises whether Talukdar was actively involved with poachers and dealers in animal parts, rather than merely winking at their nefarious activities for a consideration. Back in 2010, people of the State were treated to pictures of CBI sleuths seizing over Rs 13 crore concealed cash hoard from RH Khan’s Guwahati residence, the social welfare deputy director arrested in connection with the multi-crore development fund diversion scam in NC Hills.
There have been several instances of corrupt government officials in Assam getting caught in the act, with reports galore about the size of their assets not matching their known sources of income. Little came of such exposes, however. Therefore it is welcome that Chief Minister Sarbanda Sonowal has spoken about continuing the vigilance drive against corrupt officials. He has said that his government will adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards graft, ‘so as not to betray the trust of the people’. But after the errant official is in the net, the matter has to go to court and be resolved there. That is when the government has to be prompt in sanctioning prosecution of public servants facing graft charges. In March, 2012, the court of special judge, Assam, passed an order directing investigating agencies to file charge-sheets in corruption cases — in which the requests for prosecution sanction were pending before the State government for more than four months. This order was challenged in Gauhati High Court by several accused State government officials, including senior ACS and IAS officials, who filed over 50 petitions. Upholding the special judge’s order, the High Court cited the Supreme Court’s ruling about a 4-month deadline to the government to decide on sanctioning prosecution of public servants accused of graft. The High Court also made it clear that when there is ‘iction by the Executive for whatever reason’, the Judiciary must step in and exercise its constitutiol obligation till the Legislature acts to perform its role.
The investigating agencies therefore need to prepare airtight cases against public officials caught indulging in corruption, and the government, if it is at all serious about maintaining credibility, has to expedite their prosecution in court. And what about attaching or confiscating the ill-gotten properties of corrupt officials? This has been a major demand raised by anti-corruption movements like the An Hazare-led ‘India Against Corruption’, pointing out that after long years fighting graft charges in court — corrupt officials, even if jailed, have the luxury of returning to their illegally feathered nests. In this context, the Supreme Court made a significant observation on December 11 last year when it upheld the validity of special laws made by Bihar and Odisha governments to confiscate — at the pre-trial stage itself — ill-gotten properties of a person holding high public office or political office. Ruling that these laws are not ‘unjust, unfair and arbitrary’ and do not violate any fundamental right of the accused, the SC bench said the laws seek to achieve ‘a legislative intent of curbing corruption at high offices’. The apex court further observed that a person cannot be allowed to indulge in corruption and at the same time ‘seek protection for a roof over his head’ if the authorized officer (judge) finds through inquiry that the very house has been bought or built by corrupt means. This is an initiative other states can follow, so that accused public officials do not get to dispose off looted assets during the trial process itself.