Sunday, August 28, 2011

The many levels of corruption

With the government having agreed to introduce the Jan Lokpal bill in the Parliament for discussion, along with other civil society versions; and Anna Hazare holding his fort lest the government stages another flip-flop, it would be reasonable to assume that sooner or later India will be having an ombudsman, rather a committee of them. It is still early to tell, however, to what extent their powers may pan out. Of course, the bill should have the tooth to monitor and fight corruption. Yet, it should maintain the sanctity of the Constitution’s basic structure lest the teeth evolve into fangs.

For the sake of this post let us assume that the basic principles of the Jan Lokpal bill (the version put forward by Team Anna) have been adhered to and the ambiguous bits have been amended as the bill is passed by both Houses.

Moving beyond, it wouldn’t be unwise to ponder about the effectiveness of a Lokpal in eliminating corruption and thus ushering India to a new level of social development. For the same purpose it is necessary to distinguish the different levels of corruption. This would have been done to death during the various meetings and debates of the different drafters of the bill(s); and may be considered again in the Parliament. However, it is always worth revisiting.

1) Corruption in state sponsored welfare schemes

Rajiv Gandhi famously estimated that only 15 cents of every dollar spent on the poor actually reached them [Source]. This figure was later revised down to 5% by commentators. The welfare schemes include poverty alleviation, employment generation schemes as well as development of urban and rural infrastructure.

Improved transparency through RTI, ability to file charges and initiate prosecution, through the Lokpal, against those who reroute part of the fund and whistleblower protection together may serve potent in ensuring maximum benefit for the target population. It would be extremely heartening if news like this became more commonplace. Even if 20% of the welfare fund is reassigned to run the Lokpal machine and other ‘feedback and monitoring’ mechanisms, 80% reaching the poor is still a better state of affairs than the fate that awaits majority of the fund currently.

2) Lobbying by private interests for public resources

Illegal mining contracts, the 2G spectrum scam and the like would fall in this category. The Lokpal, empowered to initiate prosecution in a special court, can be seen to play a role in keeping a check on vested business interests and favoritism. High-level corruption may be dealt with but society will still be held back.

Liberalization post 1991 has done wonders for many sections of the Indian population. With rapid growth and a burgeoning middle class, ideally it shouldn’t be long before its benefits percolate to every section of society. However, the marginalized are still stuck at the lower rungs of economic development and in some cases their positions have even regressed. Wouldn’t it be daft to believe that this is due to corruption alone and eliminating it would magically raise the under-privileged from the clutches of poverty? When governments along with private parties use dubious land acquisition laws [1] to violently [2] affect the lives of some sections of the population, in the name of development, it is not always illegal though questions can be raised of the ethics. This is just one example of how outdated laws still strangle society. Looking beyond the Lokpal, social and economic reforms are a must to have further and sustained socio-economic development in India.

3) Graft to escape red tape inconvenience

During the special session of the Parliament on 27th August, the leader of the opposition, Sushma Swaraj rightly pointed out that though corruption higher up the administrative chain angers the common man, it is the one that prevails in the lower bureaucracy that puts him under great distress. Delays in obtaining a passport, a ration card, a driving license or a voter ID is what affects him more than the 2G spectrum scam or the CWG scam. Thus, strong monitoring of the lower bureaucracy along with the implementation of a citizen’s charter in all government offices is of extreme importance. As mentioned in the Hindu editorial a grievance redressal system (along with a citizen’s charter) is “a progressive idea whose time has come.”

However, it is worth remembering that including the lower bureaucracy under the ambit of the Lokpal (along with the higher judiciary, elected representatives, the PM Office and other high-level bureaucrats) may result in a tremendous volume of work on the shoulders of one body. There is, thus, merit in the NCPRI argument that the CVC should be strengthened to deal with the lower bureaucracy [Source]. After all, decentralization may increase administrative efficiency.

4) Corruption for mutual benefit with no perceived third party loss

Not all corruption at the lower level is at the fault of the government servants. The common man in India today is more than willing to part with some of his hard-earned money to escape fines for parking, speeding and other traffic violations, to travel ticketless in buses and trains, to escape land and property tax, and to obtain an admission for his child in a reputed  school/college in order to go one up on his neighbor’s son/daughter. At this level corruption is of mutual benefit and, in public perception, does not directly affect a third party. It is worth remembering that it is this mentality that legitimizes corruption at all levels. After all, government servants don’t fall from the sky. No anti-corruption agency can tackle this type of corruption; after all, who is going to complain? What is required is a change in public perception and a widespread mentality of civic sense. The movement led by Anna Hazare, for all its flaws, has managed to shake some out of their stupor. This is undoubtedly a good thing. Yet, there are many who do not consider this ‘harmless’ corruption to be a danger to society and it won’t take long for those awake to go back to sleep. With a sleeping public, corruption will eventually find a way to percolate into anti-graft machineries.

One of the problems of a successful movement is that the people may end up believing that they have done enough (not unlike what Slavoj Zizek says herethough in a different context) and settle back into their old ways. This mentality should not set in. Sustained public vigilance and further structural and economic reforms are, thus, important if India has to rise considerably in the Transparency International ranking.

[1] “People who argue that the act is draconian claim that a number of projects with no public purpose attached, as in the case of SEZs, usurped land from property owners, with the help of the Land Acquisition Act, at what is claimed as, well below the market value of these properties. It is argued that, even in the case of projects that are genuinely for public purposes, there is a considerable difference between the market value of the property and the value that the land acquisition officer pays the land owners. It is also argued that the relocation and rehabilitation of land owners displaced by the actions of the act, is not followed up adequately, and that this is not covered comprehensively in the framework of the act. A notable instance of opposition to land acquisition, through the land acquisition act, is the  Nandigram violence incident.” - Wikipedia (Land Acquisition Act, 1894)

Land lost, Singur farmer said no to compensation, commits suicide -

“Over 80 per cent of the Scheduled Tribe (ST) population works in the primary sector, with 45 per cent being cultivators and 37 per cent agricultural labourers. Land represents the most important source of livelihood, emotional attachment and social stability in tribal communities. The alienation of tribal land is the single most important cause of pauperisation of tribals, rendering their vulnerable economic situation more precarious.” - The weapon of empowerment, M. Hamid Ansari, Vice President of India (2010).

[2] “The Adivasis of Chhatisgarh - Victims of the Naxalite movement and Salwa Judum campaign”, Asian Center for Human Rights (2006).


confusedyuppie said...

i particularly agree with the one on red tape. gujarat engine of success is due to abolition of red tape-imagine what India could do with that?

Kirklops said...

Precisely Sandy. Though it will take a while for the whole of India to completely shake off this particular bad socialist habit.

Btw, thanks for your comment. It's really appreciated.