Thursday, October 12, 2006

Fight Against Corruption

A World Bank defines corruption as use of public office for private profit. When the world was divided between the two superpowers and the Cold War was on, the World Bank did not focus on the issue of corruption as a significant issue. The reason is obvious. So long as the Cold War prevailed, what mattered was the ideological orientation of the country receiving the aid. It used to be said by the superpowers, "We know that so and so is a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch".

This approach underwent a massive change when the Cold War ended. The taxpayers in the aid-giving countries started questioning whether the aid given was reaching the beneficiaries in the recipient countries. That the issue of checking corruption and thereby ensuring good governance was an important pre-requisite for development and removal of poverty in developing countries is now widely recognised. Corruption, therefore, has become an issue of global concern.

It is not only in the area of public governance that fighting corruption became a central issue. Even in the area of global business, thanks to the scams in the year 2000, when Fortune 500 companies like Enron and universally reputed companies like Arthur Anderson were exposed as having indulged in financial engineering and window-dressing of accounts misleading the market and the investors, the issue of corporate governance assumed equal importance. Honesty is the best policy, is a discovery the world made once again in the 1990s. Stringent legal steps, like the Sorbonne Oxley Act in the United States, were taken.

Matter of concern

For us in India, corruption has been an age-old phenomenon. Chanakya is supposed to have said in the Arthashastra that there are 40 different methods by which public officials can indulge in corruption. "The Mahamatras are like fish. Does one know, when the fish is drinking water?" he is supposed to have said. Indira Gandhi, when asked a question about corruption, passed it off with a comment that it was a global phenomenon.

But here is the rub. It is true that corruption is a global phenomenon, but the degree of corruption is not the same. The non-governmental organisation called Transparency International, in Berlin, publishes every year the Corruption Perception Index (CPI), and ranks the countries in their order of corruption. The least corrupt country, according to the CPI 2004, is Finland and the most corrupt is Bangladesh. Out of the 146 countries listed, India ranks a poor 91. Fiftyfive countries are more corrupt than India but 90 countries are less corrupt than India. India certainly belongs to the more corrupt countries of the world.

Corruption becomes a matter of concern because of its negative consequences. Corruption is anti-national. The hawala scam of the 1990s exposed how anti-national forces like the Kashmiri terrorists were getting funds through the hawala route, and it is the same route by which the corrupt bureaucrats, politicians and businessmen also were getting and laundering their funds. The 1999 UNDP report on Human Development pointed out that if India’s corruption level can be brought down to that of the Scandinavian countries, India’s GDP will grow by 1.5 per cent and FDI increase by 12.5 per cent. Corruption is, therefore, anti-economic development. The PHD Chamber of Commerce also made a study in 2001 which pointed out that if there was a 15 per cent reduction in corruption, then there would be 300 per cent enhancement of investment.

As we look ahead, the question before us is will corruption continue to plague the country?

Corruption is anti-poor. In a country, where 26 per cent of the population is below the poverty line, corruption hits the poor very badly. Many of the development schemes meant for the weaker sections do not benefit them at all. Rajiv Gandhi remarked that only 15 paise out of every rupee meant for the anti-poverty programme reaches the beneficiaries. In fact, the major point of criticism about the Government of India’s Employment Guarantee Act, which visualises a Rs 1,50,000-crore scheme — to ensure that all citizens in the rural areas are assured of a minimum 100 days of work with a daily wage of Rs 60 — is seen as a tremendous opportunity for corrupt elements among the bureaucracy and politicians to siphon off huge funds.

Even the Maharashtra Employment Guarantee Scheme on which the Central Government’s scheme has been modeled, also offers no hope. Even in that scheme, there are false muster rolls. Aruna Roy through her Mazdoor Kisan Sangharsh Samiti brought home in Rajasthan the extent of leakage in development funds.

As we look ahead to the next 10 to 15 years, what is it that we can hope for on the corruption front? It is very easy to be pessimistic. The pessimist can always argue that corruption has always been with us like the poor and it is a global phenomenon.

Nevertheless, the fact is that while corruption is a global phenomenon, we have seen countries which were corrupt, reforming themselves and getting the benefits of corruption-free, good governance in our own lifetime. Singapore is a classic example.

Botswana has also been quoted by the World Bank as a good African country, which has done well on the issue of fighting corruption. If we look at history, thanks to the highly ethical William Gladstone, four times Prime Minister of Britain, the UK which was a corrupt country in the 19th century became a well-governed country by the beginning of the 20th century.

Right attitude

As we look at the future, we should not take a pessimistic and negative attitude. As Central Vigilance Commissioner for four years, from September 1998 to September 2002, day in and day out, I was dealing with this issue of corruption. I had an opportunity to reflect and talk on this issue extensively all over the country. At the end of my tenure, I felt that one can be optimistic that India can also come out of the perennial trap of corruption and move ahead. There are silver linings in the dark clouds of corruption haunting us today. I will list three of them. The first is the Supreme Court judgment which forced candidates in elections to declare their criminal records, educational qualification and wealth while filing their nomination. It is still true that our politics has become criminalised and tainted ministers are sticking on to their chair in the Union Government, thanks to the legal fig-leaf that everybody is innocent under our law till proved guilty. The degree of transparency sought to be brought about by the Supreme Court is the first step in our long journey to fight political corruption.

The second positive development is the application of information technology in the railway reservation system in the past few decades and the enormous relief and benefit it has brought to the one crore travelling public every day in India.

The third positive development is the use of electronic voting machines in the General Election which has reduced significantly the scope for corruption and malpractices in the election process.

The passing of the Right to Information Act itself is a healthy development, thanks to the initiative taken by the Mazdoor Kisan Sangharh Samiti (MKSS) in Rajasthan. Aruna Roy of the MKSS has gone on record to say that in the rural development projects of Rajasthan, where the muster rolls are in the open and could be effectively monitored by the villagers, the scope for corruption has been reduced drastically.

These developments give us hope that we can move systematically towards a cleaner environment in public life. This calls for an understanding, first, of the dynamics of corruption and, also, what have been the effective tools for fighting corruption. If we have succeeded, in certain areas, in fighting corruption, perhaps the same technique can be replicated elsewhere.

Societal values

The degree of corruption in any organisation or society depends on three factors. The first is the individual sense of values. The second is the value cherished by society and the third, of course, is the system of governance. So far as the first issue is concerned, today our society is in a flux.

Thanks to modernisation and the tremendous impact of satellite television and the media and the policy of liberalisation, we are seeing the vigorous growth of the consumer culture.

In India, traditionally, the ascetic who gives up things was honoured. Today, the models before the younger generation are those who earn money by means fair or foul and have tons of it to splurge. Lifestyle has become very important. This consumerist culture is probably strengthening the philosophy of "get on, get honour and get honest". Can we afford to give up our consumerist culture? I am afraid not. What we can do is to at least see that certain basic values like integrity, honesty are inculcated in the educational system. In any society, values, by and large, are inculcated by the parents. They, in turn, are influenced by tradition and religion. After all, religion is nothing but crystallised tradition that upholds the ethical codes of conduct which is in the interest of society.

Begin with schools

In India, this whole concept of good behaviour got crystallised in dharma, or the set of duties every person has to perform. In the Bhagvadagita, Lord Krishna says in Chapter 3 "swadharme nidhanamshreya paradharmo bhayapaha". Doing one’s own duty is the most desirable and if one cannot perform duty, death is a better option. This inculcation of values in the educational system is possible. This, in turn, would mean referring to the sources of tradition which will involve a reference to some religion.

Today, for example, these values of good conduct, based on Hindu traditions, are taught in the DAV and the Ramakrishna Mission schools. In Christian missionary schools, the moral lessons are drawn on the basis of Christian teachings.

But our government having been secular, it has been remarkably successful in totally eliminating any induction of values in our educational system. We have, therefore, a whole lot of students coming through the schools where they do not learn any values. This big defect has to be rectified. I am happy that this seems to have been realised especially after the scams of 1997 and 2000 in global business. In the institutions like Anna University, engineering ethics has been introduced as a separate subject. But what about other streams of education? If we want India to become less corrupt, if not corruption-free, we must start with the educational system and ensure that moral values are inducted.

Role models

The second factor which decides the level of corruption is a set of social values. Here, opinion makers in society have to become role models.

Unfortunately, our politics has become criminalised. Law-breakers are lawmakers today. The only people the youth probably look upon as role models are politicians and media stars who collectively represent what is called the Page Three culture. So far as professions are concerned, every professional association can uphold ethics and codes of conduct, and thereby build role models and benchmarks for guiding society.

The third important factor is the system. In any society, from the ethics point of view, 10 per cent may, by nature, be ethical and 10 per cent will, by nature, be corrupt, and 80 per cent will modify their behaviour depending on the system. One simple example of this is how, while an Indian may throw rubbish on the streets without batting an eyelid, the same Indian, when he reaches Singapore, is on guard and may not commit nuisance or throw rubbish on the streets.

We must redesign our system of governance to check corruption. Corruption today is a game in which five major players are involved. They are the corrupt neta, the babu, lala, jhola and dada—the corrupt politicians, the corrupt bureaucrats, the corrupt businessmen, the corrupt NGOs and criminals. For tackling each of them, I would suggest the following:

Political corruption is at the root of all corruption in our country. Our politics is corrupt because it is based on black money. Every political party collects cash, which is black money. Black money is oxygen for corruption and corruption is oxygen for black money. Therefore, we must focus on electoral reform and reducing black money.

Simultaneously, we must also bring greater transparency in the raising of funds by the political parties. Some steps have been taken for removing restrictions on political contributions. We should try to create a situation similar to that of the United States or Britain in so far as fund-raising is concerned. This would provide an opportunity to reduce corruption.

Dr Jayaprakash Narayan, a very committed IAS officer who resigned and set up an NGO, Lok Satta, in Andhra Pradesh, has highlighted the need for changing our electoral system itself. Instead of the British system of first past the post, which only nine out of 47 countries have adopted, we should opt for a system of proportional representation. He also suggests direct elections for the post of chief minister, who can then appoint a cabinet of talent. It is an interesting idea and worth trying. To begin with, it is necessary to build a consensus in the country on this idea.

A simple reform that can be implemented immediately to check corruption and criminalisation of politics is to disqualify any candidate against whom charges have been framed in court. The police may be pliable but the courts apply their mind and frame charges, and hence, they are likely to be more objective.

Today, the criminal politicians take advantage of the principle that they are innocent till proved guilty and also the delays in our judicial system. Corruption has become a low- risk, high-profit business in India because our judiciary is so slow and the conviction rate is only six per cent.

There is need to change the judicial system in so far as corruption cases are concerned, so that like election cases, corruption cases, too, are required to be decided within one year. For this, the system of summary trial procedure can be introduced and the appeal limited to one court. Today, at any given point of time, around 4,000 CBI cases are pending. CBI cases, by their very nature, are supposed to be very serious and yet some of them are pending for more than 25 years. The speeding up of the cases and effective punishment will go a long way in improving the situation.

Winning formula

So far as bureaucratic corruption is concerned, the following three-point formula must be adopted.

—Simplification of rules and procedures to reduce the scope of corruption;

—Transparency and empowering of public, and

—Effective punishment.

There is an urgent need to bring a sense of accountability in bureaucracy. Article 311 provides so much protection to the public servant that it is very difficult to take action effectively and in time against corrupt officials.

Fighting corruption is a hard task. There cannot be a single-point approach to the task. We have to adopt a multi-point approach, some of which I have indicated above.

We then come to the basic question. The powers that be, whether in politics or bureaucracy or business, are benefiting from the corrupt system. Can there be a situation where these beneficiaries of corruption will initiate action to check corruption? That may amount to causing hara-kiri. My perception is that as far as our politicians are concerned, they act only under two circumstances: One, where the TINA (There is no alternative) factor prevails; and two, where there is a vote bank advantage. The TINA factor can be created in our country by broadly two methods. One is by using the route of the public interest litigation and activating the Supreme Court so that the persons concerned have no alternative but to implement it. The enactment of the CVC Act and the practice of the candidates declaring their criminal record while filing nominations are examples of this type.

However, there are also limits to judicial intervention. The second instrument that can create the TINA factor is technology, particularly information technology. We have seen how in the railway reservation system, the use of IT has brought down corruption. I understand that even in the issue of passport, computerisation has helped in bringing down corruption. So greater use of IT and reforming and simplifying the procedures can be the second broad strategy to help create the TINA factor.

Finally, we have to practice the advice given in the Taitreya Upanishad to arrive at constructive solutions to our problem:

Sahana vavatu Sahanau

bhunaktu

Saha Viryam kara va vahai

Tejas vina maditha vastu

Ma vidh visha vahai

Om Shanti! Shanti! Shanti

(Let us come together. Let us enjoy together. Let our strengths come together. Let us move from darkness to light. Let us avoid the poison of misunderstanding and hatred. That way lies progress.)

Adopting this strategy, we can definitely see India becoming a less corrupt, progressive and developed country in the next 10 to 15 years.

N. Vittal

— The writer is a former Central Vigilance Commissioner

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