Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet sought to toughen anti-corruption laws amid a widening corporate espionage scandal involving India’s biggest companies.
The proposed amendments seek to increase minimum prison time to three years from six months, with a cap of seven years, making bribery a “heinous crime,” according to a government statement on Wednesday. It also wants trials to be completed in two years down from a recent average of more than eight years.
Modi’s vows to stamp out graft appear to be redefining relationships between big business and bureaucrats. Since February, authorities have arrested at least 19 people for buying and selling documents allegedly stolen from government ministries. Some were employees of companies run by India’s richest energy tycoons, including Reliance Industries Ltd.’s Mukesh Ambani.
The cabinet is now looking to expand the scope of the law to prevent businesses -- not just individuals -- from bribing public servants. It also said that “possession of disproportionate assets” could be used against public servants as proof of illicit enrichment.
India ranked 85 out of 175 nations on corruption last year, on par with Burkina Faso and Zambia, according to Berlin-based Transparency International. The score indicates a prevalence of bribery and lack of punishment for corruption among other impediments to a healthy work environment.
One cabinet proposal, however, could make it harder to pursue government officials. Prior consent from an ombudsman would be needed to investigate officials who have resigned or retired as well as those being probed for activities or recommendations made as part of official duties.
The amendments approved by the cabinet on Wednesday still need parliament approval. If passed, they will help India meet its obligations under the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, according to the statement.