Thwarting the corrupt

Published : Feb 27, 2004 00:00 IST

Elusive evidence, cumbersome legal procedures and senior officers' preoccupation with keeping their own reputation intact come in the way of checking corruption in the bureaucracy.

THERE have been a number of articles and books on the problem of the apparently spreading corruption among public servants. I must confess having written a number of them myself, and not so long ago a former Cabinet Secretary, T.S.R. Subramaniam, wrote a book highlighting corruption, particularly in Uttar Pradesh. Those who have been consistently prolific in columns appearing in various journals and magazines have been, by and large, former civil servants like myself. And, as one can expect, articles of this sort written by persons who have served for decades in the civil services and held very senior positions do attract some attention, and perhaps, cause a certain amount of concern.

All these articles and the books do focus on a major cancer in our society, but it is almost inevitable that many of those who read these must inevitably ask, while appreciating the outrage and indignation of the writers, what these writers were doing when they were in office to contain this evil. It is all very well to express concern when one has ceased to work for the government; but what did one do when one was in service to end, or reduce, the evil one is so quick to point out and condemn? The answer would have to be - very little. Because, if they had acted then, the level of corruption would surely have come down. This is an embarrassing condemnation of oneself, but is nevertheless true.

So, why is it that we did not do what we could have to stamp out or at least reduce the amount of corruption? We were secretaries to the government, heads of departments, Directors-General of Police - in short, we were very senior and powerful officers. And yet most of us have little to show on this score; a few lower-level staff were suspended and proceeded against, fewer still were referred to the CBI and that is about it. Well, I think, to be fair, we were all of us pretty much aware that there was a great deal of corruption in some of the offices in which we worked. For example, I was certainly aware that there was a good deal of corruption in Doordarshan when I was Director-General of the organisation, and when I was Secretary, Information and Broadcasting. But there were three major obstacles to taking action to end this evil, and I daresay these apply just as well to all other organisations, Ministries and departments where the officers at the top have been aware and concerned about the dishonesty prevalent in their offices.

First, to punish anyone for dishonesty one needs solid, hard evidence. Mere suspicion or gossip will not do. Again, if I may use my own experience as an example, I was told by private producers that certain officers in Doordarshan were dishonest, but they refused, in spite of my pleading that nothing would happen to them, to give me even a slip in writing. Without that I was unable to take any steps, beyond, in time, moving the officers around. Some of them told me that transactions were concluded in some hotel lobby; very well, I told them, go ahead with it and we will organise a trap and catch them. Oh no; that they would not do. And no amount of persuasion could make them change their minds. The reason for this was not far to seek; they knew I was a bird of passage, that I would be there for a year, or two or three years and then move on, as IAS officers do. But the dishonest officers in Doordarshan would stay; they were permanent Doordarshan staff. And then, there would be a reckoning with the producers who were foolish enough to report on what went on to get a serial telecast. The result of this was that I had absolutely nothing to go on to catch the truly big fish; I am not for a moment saying that all the senior staff were shady characters, far from it. But some were bent, and I had a shrewd suspicion who they were. And there was nothing I could do about it.

The fact is one needs evidence that will stand up to the most rigorous scrutiny in a court, because the matter would certainly go to court. And if there was a gap or hazy area in the evidence, the case would certainly fail. Getting that kind of evidence was simply not possible. I was told, for example, that advertising agencies gave cameramen covering a cricket match suit lengths if they could hold the camera for just a little while on the poster or banner advertising a particular product. But how could I ever get proof of it? Could I lie in wait like a crouching leopard and leap on the advertising agency's man as soon as he handed over the material? There was no way I could have done a thing unless the advertising agency was willing to go along with me and that, for the reasons I have just given, they were not wiling to do.

Second, even if someone were charge-sheeted, the procedures were so time-consuming that years could pass before anything material happened in the case. Meanwhile, the inquiry officer would have been changed; the Director-General would have, of course, changed, material would become irrelevant or not as convincing as it may have been - a host of factors would make the process of departmental proceedings and possible punishment a painful, long drawn out affair. The person charged would, at some stage, appeal to a court that he had been kept under suspension for a long time, that his family was suffering, that he was suffering because he was really innocent and was being tormented by the departmental inquiry and so on, so that the court would pass an order in his favour.

The third obstacle is a little difficult to put down - difficult because it does not exactly show us up for being the fearless upholder of clean administration we try to present ourselves as being when we write our indignant articles about corruption. But it needs to be said. Most senior officers are concerned about keeping their own image as a clean officer shining bright, and that becomes their first concern. It is very easy to tarnish a reputation, and to many, including me, that is, or was, absolutely unacceptable.

Who steals my purse steals trash; `tis something, nothing Twas mine, `tis his, and has been slave to thousands. But he that filches from me my good name Robs me of that which not enriches him And makes me poor indeed.

And so those clean, senior officers were more diligent in keeping their own reputations beyond question, and in the process paid rather less attention to playing the role of moral policeman. This does not mean that they turned a blind eye to corruption; but it does mean that they did not make the unearthing of corrupt officers a moral crusade that consumed all their time. To this must also be added a rider - a number of officers about whom there were questions, questions, mind you, not evidence of dishonesty, were some of the most efficient ones.

SO what must we do? Accept it all? Or is it not wiser to take a good, careful look at the procedures, rules and laws that govern the apprehending of the dishonest? It is important that these must never be used to victimise the innocent; but, equally, the guilty cannot be allowed to take shelter behind them.

We ought to give the heads of departments the ability to take action that is swift and manifestly just. It may involve appointing persons of absolutely unquestioned integrity to head vigilance units that have the power to undertake secret enquiries. Not that these are necessarily a course of action one would recommend; there is something innately repellent about covert, secret acts, and in the wrong hands may assume the most harsh dimensions. But one mentions it as one of the many alternatives that can be considered. Similarly, the annual confidential reports could reflect not only an officer's personal integrity but also the efforts he has made to contain corruption among those he has control over. But what is absolutely clear is that the present state of affairs cannot be allowed to go on much longer. We simply cannot continue to accept corruption as an inevitable part of the way we govern ourselves, which sadly, is what has been done by most of us and is being done to this day.

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