Combating corruption

Print edition : March 11, 2005

Corruption in public life is a menace that can be checked only by radically changing the whole process of governance whereby public servants have little discretion in discharging a lawful service.

THE reaction in many circles to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's cryptic remarks recently in Bangalore about the need to tackle corruption in public life could be one of cynicism. It could be even derision in a few others. Like the proverbial statement regarding the weather - something that every body talks about, and there is little that one can do about it - there is an all-round sense of resignation in the country that is very much of a tragedy. Knowing the man as we do, however, it will be unfair to dismiss the Prime Minister's statement as one solely meant for the gallery. His anguish over the current abominable levels of corruption in the country seems utterly genuine. He himself has had to accommodate in his government persons whose reputation is unsavoury, to put it mildly, only in order that the country is not thrown into political instability.

This was not the first time since assuming office that the Prime Minister was giving expression to his disgust over lack of probity in many walks of life. What is of interest to many of us who are sick from the evil is whether there is going to be a serious political or administrative follow-up of his frequently expressed resolve to step in and stem the rot. Is he likely to get any support at all from his colleagues in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government?

If one may consider the track record of some who hold positions of importance, it will be futile to expect any dramatic fall-out from Manmohan Singh's public declaration. Actually, a few of them may react adversely to the idea of making government transactions more transparent. They may not also take kindly to any steps to intensify the drive against corrupt elements in government and outside it. Moves of such a kind from the Prime Minister are undoubtedly likely to be looked upon with suspicion, as politically motivated. This is why major reforms elude public administration in our country. But the positive side to any possible new exercise which Manmohan Singh may initiate is the fact that many of his aides are men of impeccable character and integrity. This is what gives hopes to some of us who are vexed with the current scene. The recent decision to seek the help of a group of distinguished former civil servants in preparing the panel for empanelment for Secretary-level jobs is a signal that the Prime Minister means business. In the past, a few men with a questionable past had managed to sneak into these vital positions, and the present decision would make such an infiltration almost impossible. This is how a real anti-graft strategy can take off.

The damage that has been done to India's reputation by the pernicious evil of public servant corruption can hardly be exaggerated. It can affect decisions by foreign investors at a time when the cap on such investments is being relaxed and we need as many entrepreneurial giants to come into our country to invest in a big way.

I now travel extensively. It is gratifying that, unlike a decade ago, India is now discussed with great respect in many public forums and private conversation. There is visible admiration for our economic liberalisation policies and our Information Technology (IT) might. Our political stability and a strong belief in democratic values are equally commended by many. Against this backdrop also comes depressing issues of probity in public life that put us on the defensive.

A number of Indians meet me, wherever I go, to get to know what is happening on various fronts back home. Many are students who look forward to upgrading their skills and returning to serve their country. Their sense of pride in the motherland is unmistakable, something that warms me beyond description. But one thing that bothers these extremely talented young men and women badly is the prevailing ambience of corruption in politics and administration. They ask questions of me that are not merely embarrassing, but are painful to the core. They specifically query me on former Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) graduate and engineer with the National Highway Authority, Satyendra Dubey of Bihar, who many people strongly believe was the victim of the mafia that rules large public sector projects, where huge sums of money are spent with minimum accountability. If you want to be honest in your responses to these young Indians living outside, you cannot but tell them that, even six decades after Independence, you will still have to pay a fee under the table in almost all our government offices, for a service to which you are entitled as a citizen. In many States you cannot get a case registered or investigated by the police if your house is burgled, without greasing the palm of the Station House Officer. You cannot similarly get a building plan approved in the straightforward manner, even if it conforms to all prescribed regulations. Also, driving licences can be obtained for a price, even if you are a novice at the wheel and cannot find time to submit yourself to a driving test.

The picture that I have drawn is horrendous but real. What intrigues me always, why is it that the common man in India has put up with this nonsense so long and has not revolted? Is this linked to an unflinching faith in karma, or is it a reflection simply of supreme indifference? Why has not a mass movement that vows to exterminate the evil taken off? Individuals like Anna Hazare have not made any difference nationally. Such people have been ruthlessly neutralised by those who have a high stake in the continuance of the present state of affairs. I strongly believe that only a well-orchestrated campaign at the national level can make a difference, albeit marginally, over the next few decades. Is there a prospect of such an exercise taking off in the near future? Realistically speaking, I don't see any. Then, what do we, as responsible citizens, do to bring about at least minimal changes that could make life less oppressive for our children and grandchildren in dealing with government?

I cease to believe that deterrence in the form of more stringent laws can do the miracle. We brought in a new law, the Prevention of Corruption Act, in 1988 to replace the 1947 Act. We went as far as to amend a crucial section of the previous legislation and introduced a provision [Section 13(1) (d) (iii)] whereby the loss caused to government and the gain obtained for an individual by a public servant is punishable, even where he did not make any monetary gain for himself, as long as the impugned act of the public servant was "without public interest".

This was considered draconian and a violation of the basic tenets of the English jurisprudence. This was a bold step that has been negated, with some courts taking the view that this was no corruption at all, and that any loss caused by a public servant had to be necessarily accompanied by evidence that he also profited by it. This is unfortunate. Searches of the homes and offices of all-India service officers yielding a hoard of liquid cash and wide media publicity to them have also not made any difference to the ultimate outcome of investigations.

They have neither proved a deterrent nor enhanced the existing levels of integrity. There is a deplorable feeling among some senior officials, that if they steeled themselves to weather the temporary storm of an investigation and an arrest, they could ultimately get away with the loot. One may agree that this is definitely not a reflection of the quality of police investigation alone. It actually raises important questions that revolve round the fundamental assumptions of the criminal justice system.

IN my view, tinkering with the current law on graft and improving the quality of investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and State Anti-Corruption Bureaus alone are not going to make any difference. We need a radical change of the whole process of governance, whereby public servants have little or no discretion when a citizen approaches them for a lawful service.

For instance, the issue of a birth certificate should be mandatory once an applicant produces proof of birth of a child in the form of a simple document from the hospital where the child was born. In cases where the birth was at a place other than a hospital, an affidavit before the Registrar, supported by the statements of two local witnesses to the birth, should be sufficient. Any complaint of a demand for additional documents should be dealt with seriously by supervisory officers. A prominent notice in the regional language stuck on the wall at such offices, specifying the prescribed fee and appealing against paying anything extra, can help to an extent. This is in fact being done in many offices, thanks to the initiative of the Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC). Availability on-line of prescribed application forms has helped in a few States to cut down corruption in the issue of such forms. But this is of limited utility in a country where computer penetration is still very low.

The Prime Minister has referred to the need to introduce state funding of elections. This has been debated for ages without any conclusion. Political parties are naturally not very enthusiastic. We have fortunately, however, come far from the days when captains of industry were literally intimidated into giving `donations' under the table. We now have a more transparent process in place that is operating reasonably well. I do not, however, think that state funding is the answer, because the cap on election expenses remains only on paper.

Many political parties have got to know how to circumvent it. What is required is to build a consensus among parties, that campaigning will be without frills and will be confined to appeals over the television and radio. This is most practical in view of the phenomenal expansion in satellite television and terrestrial broadcasts by the state-run Doordarshan. If the objective is to cut down on campaign expenditure and, therefore, corruption arising from ceaseless fund-raising, this is the only way to go about it. The perceptible decline in attendance at political rallies all over the country in the past few years should serve as a signal to parties that their message is more effectively transmitted through the visual media than by face-to-face appeal. This has an added advantage in that important functionaries like the Prime Minister, Chief Ministers and other public figures do not have to expose themselves to physical risks, at a time when political vendetta and Left extremist violence have not shown signs of abating.

What we now lack is a serious attempt to raise a new generation of citizens who will just not pay bribes whatever be the pressures of an occasion. How do we bring about a change in the mind-set? As in sports, we will have to catch our future citizens young, before they become reconciled to corruption. Schools and colleges will have to play a major role. The message against corruption should find a place in the curriculum. I can already hear some of my readers sniggering at my suggestion. They should remember that in the life of a nation, such incremental measures alone pave the way for major attitudinal changes. If we do not act now, we will go down in history as one of those nations that failed, only because it did not care for enduring values.

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