The scourge of corruption

Published : Nov 03, 2006 00:00 IST

As long as a majority of citizens are willing to go along with corrupt politicians and civil servants, current levels of dishonesty will prevail.

DEFENCE deals are again under Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) scrutiny providing a field day for the media, especially TV channels. The whole exercise seems to be aimed at providing entertainment to the public - as if they are short of it - rather than building popular opinion against graft in public services. This is why, after handling anti-corruption cases at the State and national levels for nearly a decade, I am extremely cynical whenever a scandal is unearthed. The average citizen also takes all investigations against corruption as a mere joke and waste of precious public money. In support, he cites the fact that no powerful politician or civil servant has been convicted in Free India.

As against this, he lists name after name of those who have come back (after prolonged corruption inquiries) with a vengeance and stronger popular support to strut the political firmament. So much so, we have reached a stage where a transparent and straightforward politician is looked upon as an ineffective and colourless character who deserves to be despatched to oblivion. (Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is considered an aberration and the product of an accident in history.)

The annual ritual of the Transparency International's (TI) ranking of corrupt nations does not, therefore, excite any Indian. Our low rating here is dismissed with as much casualness as Sania Mirza's mildly fluctuating ATP rankings.

Why is the Indian scene so dismal? The reasons are not far to seek. There is a basic lack of respect for law across the nation (which some describe to be a legacy flowing from the pre- Independence Non-Cooperation Movement) that is hardly conducive to projecting an anti-corruption campaign. Also, many of us unfortunately believe that the restrictions imposed by law on our conduct apply only to others and not to us.

When we plead for abstention from encouraging corruption among public servants, it is for the others to follow. Placed in a tight corner we do not hesitate even for a moment while succumbing to demands for illegal gratification. There have been instances of friends asking me to advise them on what to do when public servants demand money. I have all the time advised them against yielding to a dishonest government official. Invariably, after receiving such `impractical' advice, many friends have stopped seeking my counsel.

As long as a majority of citizens are willing to go along with corrupt politicians and civil servants with a view to obtaining favours, there is no way current levels of dishonesty are going to come down.

Current legislation against corruption has again been treated as a joke, not because it is weak. There are few convictions under it, because of poor investigation and dubious judgments at the lower judiciary level. The principal law, namely, the Prevention of Corruption (PC) Act 1988, is no doubt an improvement over the 1947 Act, in that it seeks to plug the obvious loopholes in the earlier law. In doing so, the government, however, went overboard by incorporating Section 13(1) (d) (iii) under which the prosecution did not have to prove a criminal state of mind (mens rea) or that the erring civil servant had himself made money.

It was enough to establish that a public servant had obtained pecuniary advantage to another person "without any public interest" and thereby caused loss to the exchequer while discharging his duties. This was a well-intended strengthening of existing law as it took into account a number of cases in which public servants who had favoured individuals at the cost of the exchequer got away in the past.

This new approach to putting down civil servant corruption ignored the need for upholding the time-worn principle of natural justice while dealing with an erring official.

More important, under this draconian feature, there was the danger that any civil servant who did not fall in line with a dishonest Minister could be `fixed'. This proved demoralising to the civil service as whole. Courts have generally been reluctant to convict a civil servant who had been merely negligent and where the prosecution had also not proved he had benefited.

This single unfair provision in the 1988 Act has reduced the credibility of the entire legislation, leading to a number of unjustified acquittals of dishonest civil servants on flimsy grounds. Conviction rates under the PC Act have been generally low and this has encouraged dishonesty instead of actually putting it down.

Political and civil servant corruption go hand in hand. The former promotes an ambience that encourages the latter and induces a public servant to plunge headlong into various acts of dishonesty. It is unfortunate that many top officials do not stop with being pliant. They actually act as conduits through which money finds its way to Ministers.

This is why I feel that fostering an honest civil service is the best way to tackle political corruption. This can happen only if civil servants mend their ways, something that can happen if existing Conduct Rules of government servants are not only tightened but also enforced strictly.

Far from this, every thing possible has been done to remove fear from the mind of a corrupt civil servant. For instance, no preliminary inquiry can be initiated against an All India service (Indian Administrative Service/Indian Police Service) officer in many States without the permission of the government. This enables a dishonest official to buy immunity by feeding a Ministerial hand. The revival recently of the infamous Single Directive of Central government whereby no case can be registered against a senior Central official without government approval is another damper on enthusiastic CBI officials. It is against this backdrop that when the Prime Minister declares that there will be zero tolerance of corruption, there is only derision all round.

If initiating even a preliminary enquiry is as difficult as this, things are worse with regard to obtaining government sanction for prosecuting an official in a court of law. Without such a sanction, no court will take cognisance of even the gravest of corruption charges.

Instances are legion of governments sitting over requests from the CBI or the State vigilance bureaux for according sanction. Where there is inordinate delay in respect of some officials, you can safely presume that they are the favoured ones who had colluded with Ministers in major irregularities.

I can go on and on to highlight how the situation has gone out of control. Only enormously strong and nationwide citizen movements combined with strict judicial monitoring of governmental activities can bring about some change. Let us not expect politicians to act in this regard. There is no political will to stem corruption. I am sure it will not be seen for centuries to come.

All of us therefore owe it to future generations to build a sustainable massive people's movement that will constantly monitor the scene and take matters to court wherever necessary. Or else, we will continue to be as corrupt as we are now and provide ammunition to all our detractors in the developed world.

And this is the best time to act, as we now have a scrupulously honest Prime Minister, whom we should exploit in order to bring about greater transparency and integrity in public services.

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