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Sanjeev Kumar Patro

Bhubaneswar: When the State is agog with daily detection of 'tainted' jackpots of the Pathaks, and the Odisha Vigilance as usual grabbing all the limelight with the Pathaks and Panigrahis busy calling it a 'plot' to fix them, here is a big shocker dropped by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data over the years.

It has been observed that over the years (2015-19), in more than half of the cases made out under the Prevention of Corruption (PCA) of 1988, the accused in Odisha managed to secure honourable acquittals from the courts of law.

A keen glance shows that the conviction rate, as in judicial courts sentencing the accused as guilty, hovered between 43 -48 per cent for the period between 2015-2019. The rate in 2019 was 48.6 per cent.

Comparison With Central Corruption Watchdogs

In contrast, the conviction rate last year (2019) in the national corruption watchdog, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), was over 68 per cent. The CBI had a track record of achieving conviction in over 60 per cent of cases since 2014. It needs mentioning here that the CBI investigates both body crime and economic offences. However, the Odisha Vigilance handles only economic offences, graft as well as Disproportionate Assets (DA) by state government officials .

The data available with the Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC) reveals that CBI's conviction rate is around 70 per cent in the case of economic offences.

Similarly, the conviction rate of another central anti-graft agency, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) , that looks after cases for FEMA (Foreign Exchange Management Act) violations, Prevention of Money Laundering (PMLA) cases, like hawala transactions, which are basically economic offences, had a conviction rate of whopping 93 per cent in 2019.

A Comparison With Other State Anti-graft Agencies

A comparative analysis with anti-graft bodies in other states shows that Madhya Pradesh had the highest conviction rate of 73 per cent in 2019 and is followed by Tamil Nadu. During the period of 2015-2019,when nearly 2 in every five cases had seen acquittal in Tamil Nadu and MP, Odisha recorded 3 acquittals in every five cases.

Odisha's Anti-graft Fight Serious?

On the face of it, the record here looks less enthusing. The institution of cases under PCA had recorded a consistent drop since 2015. The drop is over 38 per cent. Significantly, when institution of cases under PCA were witnessing a free fall, and when sentencing the accused as guilty had remained stagnant, how can the Sarkari Babus distance themselves from the temptation of easy money?

State Vigilance Vs RTI Activists, Lawyers

"The State Vigilance department is more concerned about creating sensationalism than combating corruption. Raids give them headlines. Pendency is very high in Odisha. Even filing charge sheets take years. High pendency and late filing of charge-sheets enable the accused to give a slip to the State's anti-graft watchdog." charged Pradip Pradhan, a RTI activist.

"The focus of Odisha vigilance was more on trap cases and netting high value DA cases. We are augmenting and strengthening our prosecution apparatus to improve the conviction rate. Our conviction rate was over 50 per cent in 2018. Even, in 2019, the conviction rate was far higher than the national average of 44 per cent," explained Odisha Vigilance Director, Dr Debashis Panigrahi.

"A delayed investigation lends a long rope for the accused, who are influential, to manage the witnesses and tamper with the evidences," warned senior lawyer Nishikant Mahapatra.. He questioned, "why does the conviction rate hovered around 60-70 per cent in trap cases, which are considered as open and shut cases ?"

"To warrant conviction even in trap cases, we need sufficient independent witnesses which is quite hard to get in trap cases, " countered a senior Vigilance official while requesting anonymity.

However, Mahapatra observed that videography of trap cases via secret camera could clinch the case for the Vigilance, since video evidences are admissible under IPC. He charged, "they lacked the instinct."

Facts About Pendency & Charge-sheeting Rate

Data with NCRB shows the pendency of cases under PC Act in Odisha was high at around 95 per cent (2019) vis-a-vis 92 per cent in 2017. The national average in 2019 stood at around 92 per cent.

The charge-sheeting rate was also miserable at 10 per cent in 2019 vis-a-vis 20 per cent in 2016 and 35 per cent in 2015. Take the instance of 2019: cases taken up for investigation were numbered to 1,660, but charge-sheets were filed in only 167 cases. Many cases are waiting since year 2015 to see a charge-sheet filed.

Why Sarkari Babus Fall To Easy Money Temptation In Odisha?

An analysis from the period 2001-2018 reveals that most of the convicted cases saw lighter punishments (imprisonment of 1 to 3 years and fines ranging from meagre Rs 4,000 to Rs 1 lakh), which hardly seem any deterrence for the corrupt.

What legal experts say: There is a need to mandate a fixed time-frame for an investigating officer to complete the investigation, and to ensure a real-time trial the number of courts needed to be linked to the fresh charge sheets filed by the department, which is not the case now, they opined.

They are also of the opinion that vigilance should remain under an independent body like Lokpal. "This will not only instil fear among the crooks but also bring a paradigm shift in investigation, charge-sheeting and conviction rates." said a lawyer appearing in the special Vigilance court.

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