| Updated at: 1850 PST, Thursday, August 04, 2011|
NEW DELHI: The Indian government on Thursday introduced a new anti-corruption bill in parliament, which activists have panned for exempting the prime minister from the scrutiny of a powerful new ombudsman.
The much-hyped "Lokpal Bill" would allow citizens to approach a newly-created watchdog with complaints about officials, including federal ministers and senior bureaucrats who are shielded under India's current laws.
The ombudsman will be picked from the highest levels of the judiciary and supported by 10 other officials who would be from the judiciary or people of "impeccable integrity".
The final version of the bill has been strongly criticised by civil society activists, who were allowed to participate in the drafting process but complained that their views were marginalised.
In particular, they attacked the decision to remove sitting prime ministers and the higher judiciary from the ombudsman's purview.
The conduct of MPs inside parliament is also exempt.
As soon as the the bill was introduced, the leader of the opposition in parliament, Sushma Swaraj, denounced the exclusions.
"Our categoric position is that the prime minister should also be within the ambit" of the ombudsman, Swaraj said.
India's Home Minister P. Chidambaram told reporters Thursday that any prime minister could be investigated after he left office.
"The prime minister has not been given immunity," he said. "The moment the prime minister demits office the complaint can be enquired into, proceedings can be taken up."
India has a dismal record of bringing corrupt senior public officials to justice.
In six decades only one senior politician, Rao Shiv Bahadur Singh, has been convicted of graft and served a jail term -- for taking a bribe in 1949.
Current laws require the government's approval before any sitting bureaucrat or minister can be prosecuted.
Civil society efforts to strengthen the bill were spearheaded by a veteran Indian activist, Anna Hazare, who won concessions from the government in April with a 98-hour hunger strike that gained widespread national support.
Arguing that the final draft revealed the government's "empty promises", Hazare, 78, urged all MPs to reject the legislation.
As the bill was being introduced in parliament, he symbolically burned a copy in the western city of Pune and said he would start a new fast on August 16.
"By introducing this weak bill the government has clearly shown that they have no intention to fight corruption," he said.
Hunger strikes, a traditional Indian protest, have become a focus of resentment over the corruption that plagues all levels of life in India, from massive government contracts to small daily bribes. (AFP)