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Fighting Corruption

The growing distrust of government and widespread public rage against corruption are driven by what citizens experience in their day-to-day interactions with a variety of public agencies. The solution to this problem lies in the reform of the public service design and delivery at all levels of government. Transparency in public governance can go a long way in reducing the scope for corruption. That discretionary decision-making under the shadow of non-transparency is tailor-made to breed corruption is borne out by numerous recent cases.

COMMENTARY

Fighting Corruption

Samuel Paul

Corruption as a widespread malaise was not suddenly discovered in 2011. The fact is that corruption was always in the news ever since Independence. However, in r ecent years, people have seen its scale and

The growing distrust of government and widespread public rage against corruption are driven by what citizens experience in their day-to-day interactions with a variety of public agencies. The solution to this problem lies in the reform of the public service design and delivery at all levels of government. Transparency in public governance can go a long way in reducing the scope for corruption. That discretionary decision-making under the shadow of non-transparency is tailor-made to breed corruption is borne out by numerous recent cases.

Samuel Paul (samuelpaul@mac.com) is with the Public Affairs Centre, Bangalore and the author of several books, including Corruption in India: Agenda for Action.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
august 27, 2011

A
nna Hazare’s movement has snowballed into an explosion of revulsion and anger among citizens against corruption in public places. Most people in the streets supporting him are not out there because they are aware of the differences between the Jan Lokpal Bill and the official Lokpal Bill. They are just fed up with corruption. Some have unrealistic expectations of what a Lokpal can achieve. Many politically motivated people have climbed on the bandwagon to further their own ends. What is certain, however, is that the movement has created a visible forum for a wide spectrum of citizens to vent their anger against the governance deficit and public corruption they experience in their daily lives. The housing scam in Mumbai, the Commonwealth Games scam and the telecom 2G scam were the last straw. The fall of corrupt chief ministers, arrests of the telecom minister and his business accomplices, and a widespread belief that the authorities are indifferent to the corruption menace have made the Government of India the main target of attack.

Malaise of Corruption

The Government of India was forced to negotiate with civil society movements because of the mass public support and media glare behind them. The government’s response to the crisis situation, however, was not well-thought-out and well-managed. Though a joint drafting committee was a positive response, nominating five civil society persons, all with the same view, was not designed to elicit multiple options and balanced viewpoints on s pecific provisions of the bill. The government also failed to explain to the people that its duty is to consider diverse views, and present its version to Parliament, without being a rubber stamp for any civil society group’s views. Instead, the insinuations about the panel members and their motives by official spokespersons, and subsequent uncalled for restrictions on protests simply diverted attention from the real issues.

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spread increasing by leaps and bounds. They have seen successive governments’ reluctance to tackle the problem in earnest. Anti-corruption laws have been passed in Parliament, but seldom enforced, and the guilty rarely punished. The political will to improve essential public services and make them corruption-free was not in evidence. Discretion in policy decisionmaking and the award of large contracts by ministers have led to abuse of power and corruption. The Lokpal Bill, aimed at setting up an essential anti-corruption institution, was pending for over four decades. The tipping point was reached in 2011 as these factors converged.

Why is corruption so rampant in India? There are several reasons. First, certain traditional practices of paying bribes to public officials may have created a tolerance of corruption in our society. In many government offices such as the registrars’

o ffices, it has been a normal practice to pay bribes. Political parties have openly distributed cash and goods to voters during election time. Once such practices are widespread, it is difficult to root them out. Second, since many government services are monopolistic in nature (only government supplies them), it becomes easy for corrupt officials to extort money or favours from those who seek the services. Third, when decisions are made without transparency, it becomes easy for public officials to favour those who are willing to give them bribes. Fourth, when those in authority are unwilling or unable to monitor the actions and performance of those working under them, corruption becomes a low risk activity. Fifth, political parties need large funds for fighting elections. There is little accountability and transparency in the collection and use of these funds, creating in the process enormous scope for black money and corruption.

So far, we have talked about corruption in government, meaning, the abuse of public power for private gain. But corruption in the private sector is also a serious problem and needs to be dealt with. In fact, the two are often linked. To avoid

COMMENTARY

tax, many persons and business firms which are engaged in real estate and other transactions in cash, create unaccounted money in the process. Many firms generate black money through partially accounted purchases and sales. Businessmen need to create black money in order to make political donations or to win contracts. It encourages them to siphon off some of their funds from business, thus, evading taxation and deceiving their shareholders. We have here a vicious circle that is difficult to break and that perpetuates corruption and abuse of power all around.

Tackling Corruption

The key prerequisites for effectively tackling corruption are a critical mass of political leaders committed to this cause and a significant section of business and civil s ociety that respects the rule of law and resists corruption. While punishing the guilty is important, institutions such as the Lokpal or Lokayukta can play only a limited role. Norms and values of society at large need to strengthen people to fight corruption. Needless to add, preventive measures can also play a significant role in fighting corruption.

A complex phenomenon like corruption needs to be fought on multiple fronts. Concerted efforts by government, civil society and business firms are essential for success in the long run. The core components of the strategy are the adoption of major electoral reforms, effective use of existing laws that mandate governments to empower people with information, greater transparency in discretionary d ecision-making, prompt and severe punishment of the guilty, and citizen-friendly public services.

Of these, electoral reforms, including election financing, have been widely debated, but not acted on. Those who are to lead these reforms are trapped in a political culture that resembles the corrupt 19th century politics of the west. Significant public financing of elections, limits on electoral expenditure, and its disclosure and audit are examples of preventive a ction that can help control corruption.

RTI Sledgehammer

Much less attention has been given to the effective use of existing laws to work in a preventive mode. A classic case is the Right to Information (RTI) Act, Section IV of which requires governments to provide a great deal of useful information to the public suo motu. When citizens are aware of their entitlements and rights, they are more likely to demand them and resist corruption. The failure to implement this section is a major reason why people are forced to seek information under RTI that in other countries is readily available to the public. Similarly, the Prevention of Corruption Act already exists. Yet, the number of high level officials punished under this Act is negligible.

Transparency in public governance can go a long way in reducing the scope for corruption. Major policy decisions, award of contracts and licences and discretionary decisions that benefit private parties are the contexts in which big scams emerge. To access information on these require heroic efforts. It often takes much staying power and the use of the RTI sledgehammer to crack this nut. Since these are matters of public interest, should not the information be disclosed to the public without anyone asking for it?

That discretionary decision-making u nder the shadow of non-transparency is tailormade to breed corruption is borne out by numerous recent cases. Land acquisition and allocation by governments offer considerable scope for corruption. After a cquiring land for public purposes, autho rities may denotify and gift or sell parts of the land using their discretionary powers. These nontransparent transactions are a fertile source of corruption and nepotism as such information is never placed in the public domain.

Many regulatory agencies also indulge in similar opaque practices. The Medical Council of India (MCI) regulates admission to medical colleges and lays down the standards for medical education. After years of corruption allegations against the MCI by medical colleges, its president was recently caught in a bribery case and imprisoned. Though standards and regulatory norms can be clear and lend themselves to be applied transparently, the MCI had followed an opaque regime that did not p ermit its decisions to be placed in the public domain or subject to challenge by the a ffected parties.

The growing distrust in government and widespread public rage against corruption

august 27, 2011

are, to a large extent, driven by what citizens experience in their day-to-day interactions with a variety of public agencies. The answer to this problem lies in the reform of the public service design and delivery at all levels of government. Some shrug off this phenomenon as petty corruption, while others attribute it to the failure of a few officials and politicians. This is a big mistake as it reflects a major systemic failure of the State for which the blame should be put at the door of those at the top.

Major Gaps and Remedies

There are four major gaps in the public service arena that breed corruption and hence need to be rectified. First, there is a lack of information that makes it difficult for citizens to know what they should do to access services, and what they are entitled to once they gain access. Next, there is a one-sided agreement a citizen must enter into with the service provider. The latter will insist on the citizen paying the fee, providing the needed documents and other terms, but does not promise to deliver a predictable service or benefit. The citizen cannot hold the provider accountable for time deadlines, quality and standards of service, or penalty in case of failure. The third is the lack of grievance redress when problems arise. The government can terminate a service or penalise the citizen if she/he fails to comply with the rules. But it does not provide the latter with a credible grievance redress mechanism to respond to his/her complaints. Finally, there is a reluctance on the part of public officials to listen to the voice of the people, especially the poor. Though the government has control over its services and makes the rules, it seldom monitors the actual delivery of its services. Under these conditions, corruption tends to thrive. Influential citizens may make their voice heard. Some others pay bribes and get what they need from the government. But the vast majority of people do not get their entitlements in full.

What are the remedies? Empowering people with the information they need about their entitlements, rights and remedies is the first step. The government has taken some halting steps in this direction,

vol xlvi no 35

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

but needs to do much more. A more balanced and transparent contract between citizens and service providers is the next step. The government has to allocate more resources and install more robust systems if this remedy is to work. Putting in place effective grievance redress mechanisms, and using new technologies where appropriate, is the third requirement. Several experiments are underway in this arena. Replication of the best among these on a large scale is the obvious answer. Furthermore, all governments and their service providers must periodically gather systematic feedback from citizens on their services and programmes and use the findings to continuously improve their quality and reduce corruption.

Finally, there should be swift and s evere penalties for those found guilty of corruption. Today, corruption is a low risk activity. Our judicial system is slow, and very few are caught and punished in a way that has a deterrent effect on others. A strong Lokpal institution could make a difference. It remains to be seen whether the proposed bill will in fact live up to this expectation.

Treating the symptoms of corruption will not result in the eradication of this evil. Black money is an example of a symptom. Remedies such as an amnesty scheme to legitimise black money, or bringing back some black money from Swiss banks or other tax havens may create a sense of fear among the corrupt for some time. But if the root causes of corruption are not dealt with, new ways of creating and hiding black money will be found. Similarly, a Lokpal may investigate corruption cases against the prime minister or other top public officials. This, however, is like tackling the problem after the damage has been done. What is urgently needed is the

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political will to implement the wider set of reforms discussed above. Prevention is better than cure.

Civil society has an important role to play in this context. It can exert pressure on the government to control corruption. It can monitor areas in which public- and private-sector corruption is rampant and can engage in educating citizens to resist corruption. It can present plans and reforms that can reduce the scope for corruption and monitor government actions in the public arena. Anna Hazare has played this role in his recent encounters with the government. Civil society movements, however, should be clear about their role in this process. They cannot claim to be representing all people. Representative institutions already exist. Civil society should strive to present actionable ideas and i nfluence and energise these institutions of governance to control corruption.

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Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
august 27, 2011 vol xlvi no 35

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