The number of corruption cases registered by the CBI have gone down drastically since an amendment to the Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA) was signed into law in July 2018.
The number of cases recorded last year dropped by around 40 per cent compared to those logged in 2017 (a year before the amendment), according to data shared by CBI with Central Vigilance Commission.
At first glance this seems like a good thing - a fall in corruption levels is to be praised. However, it is worth noting what Section 17A, one of the significant bits of the amendment, says.
"No police officer shall conduct any enquiry or inquiry or investigation into any offence alleged to have been committed by a public servant under this Act, where the alleged offence is relatable to any recommendation made or decision taken by such public servant in discharge of his official functions or duties, without the previous approval...," the section reads.
This means that any investigating agency needs the permission of the government to initiate inquiries against a public servant. This provision, though, does not apply to bribery cases where the official is caught red-handed, i.e., while taking a bribe.
In 2019, out of the 710 cases registered by the CBI (this included 103 preliminary enquiries), 396 were corruption cases that invoked the PCA. Of these 396 cases, 116 were bribery-related matters that did not require permission of the govenrnment under Section 17A.
In effect, therefore, last year the CBI registered only 280 corruption cases. These cases were only registered after permission from the government.
Compared with figures from 2017 (pre-PCA amendment), out of 1,076 cases registered 632 were corruption cases invoking PCA. Of these, 167 were bribery-related, meaning the agency registered 465 corruption cases.
The percentage of registered PCA cases has therefore gone down by 37 per cent between 2017 and 2019. In that same time the percentage of PCA cases that require permission from the government has gone down by 40 per cent.
In 2017, as many as 1,142 public servants were booked in corruption cases. This has fallen to 607 in 2019. Those booked under PCA dropped by 47 per cent in 2019 compared to 2017.
A senior officer admitted that Section 17A had "adversely impacted investigations into corruption cases... not just quantity but also quality". The officer also said that investigators now had to spend more time and energy "running to the government as even a preliminary Enquiry cannot be initiated without permission of the competent authority".
In fact, in some cases the central agency has had to go ahead without naming the public servant as an accused because permission was not given.
In a case relating to alleged irregularities in the award of a Rs 480 crore project to build a medical college and hospital in Kerala's Kollam - a case which involved former top officials of the Employees' State Insurance Corporation (ESIC) - the CBI registered a case without naming the then-Director General, PC Chaturvedi, and the then-Financial Commissioner, Rajiv Datt.
Meanwhile, a second official told NDTV that the need to get prior permission was "compromising the secrecy of probes and delaying investigations". For these reasons, the official said, the CBI had opposed this provision before a select committee of Parliament.
Sources told NDTV that the three-day National Conference on Vigilance and Anti-Corruption, which has been organised by the agency and is to be inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday will be discussing this issue.