The Supreme Court Monday told former Andhra Pradesh chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu, arrested in the Skill Development Corporation scam, his contention of mandatory prior approval before conducting an inquiry in a corruption case will be viewed in a way that the object of the Prevention of Corruption Act does not get defeated. Section 17A was introduced by an amendment with effect from July 26, 2018 and the provision stipulates a mandatory requirement for a police officer to seek prior approval from the competent authority for conducting any enquiry or inquiry or investigation into any offence alleged to have been committed by a public servant under the Prevention of Corruption Act (PC Act).
“While interpreting section 17A, we have to see that the very object of the Act to counter corruption does not get defeated. We cannot adopt an interpretation which will frustrate the objective of the Act,” a bench of Justices Aniruddha Bose and Bela M Trivedi said.
The remarks by the top court came after senior advocate Harish Salve, appearing with lawyer Siddharth Luthra for the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) leader, submitted that section 17A was inserted by Parliament to keep a check on harassment of a public servant, who has taken a decision while discharging his official duty.
The top court is hearing Naidu’s plea challenging the high court order refusing to quash the FIR against him in the Skill Development Corporation scam case.
During the hearing, which continued for nearly two hours, Salve said section 17A of the PC Act, in fact, strengthens the law as it allows a public servant to work freely without any fear of harassment.
He submitted the inquiry against Naidu commenced in 2021 and hence Section 17A of the PC Act will be applicable to the case, and refuted the claim of the state government that the probe commenced before the 2018 amendment came into force.
Referring to the remand order of the trial court, he said it states that the case was based on a preliminary enquiry in 2021.
“So, any enquiry or investigation launched against a public servant after the 2018 amendment will require sanction under Section 17A, regardless of the date of the offence,” the senior lawyer said.
On the Andhra Pradesh government’s claim of enquiry having started in 2017 in the case, Salve said, “It is factually wrong. It was not the enquiry which led to this FIR. It appears some enquiry was done, which was folded up. Thereafter, a fresh enquiry was done.”
While an inquiry denotes a formal investigation, enquiry means the act of asking questions in an informal way.
The hearing remained inconclusive and will continue on Tuesday.
On October 3, Naidu had failed to secure any relief from the apex court in the case.
The top court had asked the Andhra Pradesh government to place on record all material which were produced before the high court in connection with the case.
The state government has argued that Naidu’s petition for quashing the FIR be rejected as the question about the applicability of section 17A of the Prevention of Corruption Act does not arise as the provision came into force in July 2018, while the CBI began probing the case in 2017.
Naidu, 73, was arrested on September 9 for allegedly misappropriating funds from the Skill Development Corporation when he was the chief minister in 2015, causing a purported loss of Rs 371 crore to the state exchequer. His judicial remand has been extended by the trial court till October 5.
The CID, in its remand report, alleged that Naidu “indulged in a criminal conspiracy with the intention of fraudulent misappropriation or otherwise conversion of government funds for his own use, disposal of property which was under the control of a public servant, besides engaging in cheating, forging documents and destroying evidence”.
Naidu had moved the top court on September 23, challenging the Andhra Pradesh High Court order dismissing his petition for quashing the FIR against him in connection with the alleged scam.
While dismissing his petition, the high court had said criminal proceedings ought not to be scuttled at the initial stage and quashing an FIR should be an exception rather than the rule.
Naidu is currently under judicial remand and lodged in the Rajamahendravaram central prison.