Hong Kong model

Published : Dec 17, 2010 00:00 IST

India needs an independent anti-corruption agency to enhance transparency and credibility in its fight against corruption.

[I] t is quite wrong that the police, as a force, should carry the whole responsibility for action in this difficult and elusive fieldthe situation calls for an organisation, which can devote its whole time to the eradication of this evil.... Clearly the public would have more confidence in a unit that is entirely independent and separate from any department of the government, including the police.

Sir Murray McLehose (October 1973), Governor of Hong Kong.

A SERIES of disquieting happenings allegations of corruption in organising the Commonwealth Games, the Adarsh Housing Society and the 2G spectrum allocation has again raised fundamental questions about the state of our nation. Adding to the discomfiture of the Central government is the controversy over the appointment of the Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC). It is said that the present CVC was chosen despite the fact that a charge sheet is pending against him in the Palmolein import case of Kerala.

As I write this column, yet another instance of alleged misconduct on the part of a top official is unfolding itself. This time, an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, in an obviously key position in the Ministry of Home Affairs, has been arrested for questioning by the Delhi Police for allegedly passing on sensitive information to unauthorised private persons.

The first impression is that he has been peddling data for an unknown price. He is also said to have taken part in the government's negotiations with the Canadian firm Research in Motion (RIM), which operates Blackberry services, for providing access of its traffic to security agencies. If the charges against the young official from the West Bengal cadre are true, a major question that arises is whether the mere enhancing of salaries of higher civil services especially the IAS and the Indian Police Service (IPS) is enough to keep the officers in them above temptation.

Getting into the details of each of these unsavoury episodes and naming names may be sensational, but that will hardly take us forward in the exercise to cleanse the nation of the muck that has been mounting at an alarming pace. The Prime Minister, undoubtedly, has a lot of questions to answer. But I believe nothing is more important than launching a major exercise to give the honest citizen an assurance that the guilty will be punished swiftly and that enough deterrents will be built into the system so that Ministers and civil servants will think twice before lapsing into any act of dishonesty.

Political reluctance

The task is formidable. It is not one that has not been attempted before. Several experiments were aborted because of political reluctance to go the whole way in fighting dishonesty in public life. This is no reason to give up the struggle to make dishonesty punishable wherever it is detected and to reward honesty generously and in public gaze.

This is the time for an upright head of government to initiate a series of no-nonsense measures to ensure that the nation will not be allowed to be bartered to enemy agents or robbed of its wealth by a few venal politicians and bureaucrats. An occasional public pronouncement by the Prime Minister of his resolve to combat corruption is unconvincing in the context of continuing corruption at the highest levels in government.

Pontification on the evils emanating from dishonesty cannot save the Prime Minister's enviable image of being a good man for very long. He has to act now, and act quickly, to put corrupt public servants, including Ministers, on notice. Many people would like to remember him not just for his considerable achievement on the economic front but also for having at least tried to protect the nation from those who are lining their pockets without any fear of the law.

It is commonplace to say that as in the case of ordinary crime, the incidence of corruption by public servants can at best be brought down and not wholly liquidated. This widely held belief, no doubt, smacks of a degree of pessimism, which has the effect of cutting at the root of all efforts to promote integrity in public life. Even so, the recent major instances of corruption deserve a clinical analysis if we are to go forward with a well thought-out action plan.

Such an analysis reveals that dishonesty knows no regional barriers. Officers indulge in corruption at a very early stage in their careers. Uniformed forces, including the Army, have allowed themselves to be polluted, thereby endangering national security. Enforcement agencies themselves have to protect their ranks from the lure of easy money offered by a few aggressive and unscrupulous commercial houses. One can go on adding to the list of circumstances under which senior civil servants willingly allow themselves to be compromised.

Where does the cleansing process begin? In my view it starts with creating an intelligence machinery that keeps a tab on dishonesty in high places. As it is we do not have one of that kind. The Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) does brief the Prime Minister whenever it stumbles on sleaze that could directly damage the government's reputation. It would, however, be unfair to expect the I.B. to keep track of all dishonest civil servants.

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has a small unit that collects intelligence on dishonest public servants. Its productivity is limited because of the resources crunch. If it is considered preposterous or uneconomical to set up a separate agency (such as the Multi-Disciplinary Monitoring Agency contemplated by Home Minister P. Chidambaram) to collect such intelligence, the CBI needs to be expanded substantially. As far as I know, it has not received the kind of massive support that it needs from the government. This is generally attributed to a lack of political will across the spectrum (that includes the ruling parties and the opposition) and the low priority accorded to anti-corruption initiatives.

There are many other impediments to the CBI's efficient functioning. The most important of these is the single directive that makes prior permission of the government mandatory for initiating an inquiry against an officer of and above the rank of Joint Secretary. Next comes the enormous time taken by the government to accord sanction to prosecute an officer against whom a regular case has been registered and where facts unearthed by the CBI warrant such prosecution.

During the recent hearing in a public interest petition filed by Subramanian Swamy seeking sanction to initiate proceedings against Telecom Minister A. Raja, the Supreme Court specifically queried the Attorney General as to how many sanction requests were pending and for how long. The information that the government is likely to place before the court could be a revelation of sorts.

A number of State governments are also known to be equally tardy in the matter. They practise discrimination by denying or delaying sanction in respect of those who they would like to protect for favours received. The Prime Minister's Office (PMO) is fully aware of these difficulties faced by the CBI. This is the time it should spring into action and clear the backlog of sanction requests in various Ministries. This by itself would send the signal that corruption will not be tolerated on any account.

What about any other institutional arrangement? The creation of the Central Vigilance Commission in its current form following the enactment of the CVC Act is tokenism at its worst. It has only nominal authority, making the whole organisation toothless. It can at best initiate an inquiry wherever corruption by a public servant is suspected. But not more. It does attempt to speed up the sanction of the prosecution process by direct contact with the various Central Ministries. Its success in the matter is only a little more than modest. When it comes to cases of senior civil servants hauled up for corruption, its record is nothing much to speak about.

Independent commission

Is it not time for us to follow what Hong Kong did in 1974 by creating an Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC), which has transformed the region into a nearly corruption-free area? The ICAC came into being against the backdrop of intolerable levels of corruption by top civil servants and their cronies. The sea change that the ICAC has brought about in Hong Kong is almost part of a fairy tale.

The ICAC derives considerable clout from the ICAC Act. It has its own investigative machinery and enjoys wide powers of arrest and search. The head of the ICAC and other Commissioners are chosen with the greatest objectivity possible from among those who have an impeccable record for integrity.

My good friend C. Rajkumar, Vice-Chancellor and Dean of the O.P. Jindal Global Law School, Panipat, who earlier taught Law at the City University of Hong Kong, is an authority on the working of the ICAC. His well-researched article on the impact of the ICAC, in the San Diego International Law Journal (Vol. 5, 2004), gives an objective analysis of the Hong Kong experiment that has come to stay.

We need to adapt suitably the ICAC model to our requirement. I believe the CVC itself can be restructured by drawing on the ICAC's main features, especially its absolute independence. This is the only way we can enhance transparency and credibility in our fight against corruption.

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