It was originally meant to rein in the supposedly corrupt elements in the bureaucracy, but has resulted in sleepless nights for bureaucrats. The provisions of the Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA), 2013 could lead to delayed decision making at all levels of the government. Section 13 (1) (d) of the PCA—that came to the forefront when former prime minister Manmohan Singh and former coal secretary PC Parakh were summoned in a case relating to the allocation of the Talabira-II coal mines to Hindalco—has penal provisions that could result in up to seven years in jail. The Section makes it a criminal offence if a public servant obtains for another person or corporate, any valuable thing or pecuniary advantage without public interest. While the cause is understandable, this clause can be interpreted in multiple ways—in the Talabira case, one interpretation of ‘public interest’ could be to get a large investment project going while another could be that the rights of the PSU Neyveli Lignite were hurt by getting it to share the mine with Hindalco. What bureaucrats fear the most is being dragged into an enquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation or the Enforcement Directorate long after they have retired. Many senior bureaucrats have asked prime minister Narendra Modi to remove the section from the PCA.
Since delaying decisions do not attract the provisions of the PCA, not removing this provision is likely to ensure bureaucrats don’t go out of their way to take decisions that can be interpreted as their helping someone get a pecuniary benefit—since all business is done to earn profits, anything that helps business can be interpreted as bad governance. Speaking at the Express Group’s Idea Exchange a few days ago, finance minister Arun Jaitley said a revamp of the PCA is required as the fear of penal action is a major deterrent for quick decision making. It remains to be seen how quickly the government moves to get the Act into shape. The speed with which it can manage to do it will be symptomatic of how quickly it wants business to happen. Nor is it the case that removing this section of the PCA will allow corrupt bureaucrats to get away scot free. There are other provisions of the law that they can be booked under. The problem with this section of the PCA is that bureaucrats can be booked under it without much evidence of a quid pro quo.