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Activist ends fast as India pledges to fight graft

India's government ordered up strong anti-corruption legislation on Saturday after a 73-year-old activist went on a four-day hunger strike and inspired a nationwide protest movement against graft.

Anna Hazare — whose hunger strike drew wide attention and support from politicians and Bollywood stars — ended his fast Saturday by accepting lime water from a child, but warned he'd resume it if anti-corruption laws are not improved by Aug. 15.

"Our fight against corruption does not end here," Hazare told thousands of followers. "If the government does not get the legislation passed, I will hold the national flag and join you people here for another agitation."

He agreed to end the strike after the government pledged Friday to form a joint committee with members of civil society to improve laws against bribery, fraud and other crimes of public office.

The moves follow months of scandal-plagued politics that have embarrassed the government with allegations of improper telecoms licensing and irregularities in staging last year's Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said he hoped the anti-corruption measures could be introduced in Parliament during its "monsoon session" starting June 30.

"The fact that civil society and government have joined hands to evolve a consensus to move this historic legislation augurs well for our democracy," Singh said in a statement.

The government issued a formal order setting up a 10-member committee under Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee that includes Hazare, two lawyers and a retired Supreme Court judge. The idea is to resurrect an anti-corruption bill that has languished in Parliament since 1972 which would create an independent watchdog to investigate graft allegations.

Law Minister M. Veerappa Moily said the committee will meet next Saturday.

Corruption has long tainted Indian politics and drawn attention away from the country's economic gains and democratic credentials. Even as India aspires to be a world power, it was ranked 87 out of 178 countries on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index last year — a slide downward from its position a year earlier as the 84th country out of 180.

Hazare's hunger strike, echoing the tactics of freedom fighter Mohandas K. Gandhi, inspired protests across India by people fed up with a seemingly unending string of scandals. Thousands of schoolchildren, office workers, religious leaders, farmers and doctors flocked to the tent in a New Delhi park where Hazare carried out his public fast from Tuesday, while hundreds joined the fast in solidarity.

"People have shown to the world that we are one on an issue which relates to the country. People stood united here, irrespective of caste, religion and community," Hazare said after ending his fast.

Hazare told his followers he would continue to press for election finance reforms and legal rights to recall officials who abuse office.

The crowd erupted in cheers, singing and dancing to beating drums as they celebrated what many called "a people's victory."

Politicians had also flooded the protest site, but Hazare's associates barred them from sitting beside him on the dais.

Many state ministers, some of whom have faced corruption allegations themselves, applauded the protest action and warned that corruption is damaging the country's reputation abroad. In northern Himachal Pradesh, Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal said his government would push for state legislation allowing the confiscation of illegally acquired wealth.

The ruling Congress party has faced opposition and public anger over recent scandals including the sale of cell phone spectrum in 2008 that reportedly cost the country tens of billions of dollars in lost revenue. The telecoms minister had to resign and is in jail pending a probe into the losses.

Congress has also come under fire for alleged mismanagement and corruption tied to the Commonwealth Games and the takeover of valuable Mumbai apartments intended for poor war widows by powerful bureaucrats and politicians' relatives. The country's top anti-corruption official was forced to resign last month after the Supreme Court ruled that graft charges he faced disqualified him from holding the office.