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India’s corruption scandals spawn citizen protest

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NEW DELHI — Indians fed up with recent corruption scandals have launched a nationwide protest demanding that they be allowed to participate in drafting a tough, national anti-graft law.

The multi-city campaign called “India Against Corruption” is aimed at stopping the proposed Ombudsman Bill, which critics say is too weak. It allows a government ombudsman to recommend cases for investigation but does not give the ombudsman any police-like power.

A coalition of social crusaders across India have drafted their own parallel and more stringent bill, called the Citizens’ Ombudsman Bill, which would empower an ombudsman to receive complaints directly from citizens and investigate and prosecute them.

The coalition wants citizen input into the selection of an ombudsman, and is calling for the ombudsman to have the power to pursue charges against judges and the prime minister’s office.

“We will not accept another weak, toothless and merely advisory bill. This is hopeless. We do not have any faith in the government’s bill,” said Kiran Bedi, a retired police officer and social worker who was among hundreds protesting in New Delhi on Wednesday.

“Is there no political will to end corruption in this country?”

The demonstrators — students, teachers, executives, lawyers, doctors, retired officials and activists — held placards and shouted slogans denouncing the government-proposed ombudsman’s bill, which was drafted 42 years ago and has been introduced 10 times in parliament but never passed.

Anna Hazare, a 72-year-old activist, began a hunger strike Tuesday demanding that the government consult citizens before finalizing the bill.

“The government’s proposal is mere eyewash,” said Hazare, sitting under a white tent and flanked by protesters on the second day of his fast. “It does not strengthen the anti-corruption fight in India. All that we are asking the government to do is to form a joint committee, consult us, allow the citizens to participate in the drafting of a new anti-corruption bill.”

The campaign’s online petition has logged about 570,000 supporters.

Officials say they are open to suggestions from the people, but they insist that people cannot write legislation.

Manish Tewari, a Congress Party spokesman, said that Hazare’s fast was “not appropriate, probably unnecessary and premature, because the government has already formed a panel” to examine the contours of the anti-corruption legislation.

But India’s law minister, Veerappa Moily, told reporters that the government is open for more discussion. “We have not closed the issue. But we said that we will not be able to meet now, for constraint of time and the pressure of elections,” Moily told reporters in his office. “The bill has gone through the mill for 42 years. All right, if you want more discussions, then we are prepared to reflect.”

In the past six months, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government has been rocked by a series of big-ticket corruption scandals that have triggered massive public outrage. They include a mammoth $39 billion telecom scandal, cutbacks in organizing last year’s Commonwealth Games, and the grabbing by politicians and bureaucrats of Mumbai apartments meant for war widows and veterans.

On Tuesday, Anil Ambani, one of India’s leading business tycoons, testified before a parliamentary panel investigating the telecom scandal. Police have charged employees of one of his companies, Reliance Telecom, with cheating to secure telecom licenses from the government.

“There is no limit to corruption now in this country. This is a movement of people’s anger. We have lost patience,” said Minu Kothari, 20, a university student and volunteer at the protest site in New Delhi.

Singh’s Congress party faces elections in five key states this month; many observers consider those votes a midterm referendum on his rule.

“I have written so many letters to the prime minister asking for time to meet and discuss. No reply,” Hazare told reporters. “Everybody is drowned in corruption. I will fast until I die for the cause of cleaning up the system.”

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