Economic Times, August 29, 2011

By Pradeep S Mehta

Anti-corruption set-ups at the state and district levels will strengthen the Centre’s efforts for an effective Lokpal

In the epic Mahabharata, when Draupadi was being disrobed, the blind king Dhritarashtra ‘watched’ it silently and unashamedly. He did not stop Dushashan from this dastardly act, as the crown prince Duryodhan was egging him on. Bhishma Pitamah sat still with deafening silence, and the wise minister Vidur protested when Draupadi shouted in anger.

We see a similar drama unfolding, when the head of government claims total honesty but does not respond to the charge that all this was happening right under his nose. Whether it was the 2G scam or the Commonwealth Games or the cash-for-votes, can the perception of people change that it did not involve the highest authority in the country?

This is why the support for the Anna Hazare movement was spontaneous. People are hoping that the movement will bring about better governance in the country. If the change has to happen at the highest level through a constitutionally-empowered Lokpal, surely it will have a trickle-down effect on the morass that we see prevailing in our administrative system.

Corruption has now become a part of our DNA and is now a pandemic. Changing that will take a few generations, but we have to begin now.

The issues are not just about getting a ration card or whatever without greasing palms, but also addressing the distortions that exist in the system that have spillover impacts on the society and the economy. Today, nearly all the kamdhenu posts in the country are auctioned: be it a policeman’s or an engineer’s or a regional transport officer’s position, or a district food supply officer’s post.

To amplify the systemic issues, the public distribution system is one such glaring example. Research shows that only 10% of the benefits accrue to the poor, while leakages are about 43%, and the rest goes to the inefficient government system.

Because the system feeds on political patronage and, hence, all parties are together in supporting it like the caste reservation system. Therefore, the incentive to politicians to support such reforms is poor.

“Central government is proposing to introduce National Food Security law that would provide statutory framework to ensure food security for alla¦ But the law will be rendered futile like PDS if it does not come up with an appropriate mechanism for its implementation.

PDS is synonymous with corruption,” says Justice D P Wadhwa in the overview chapter of the report of the Central Vigilance Committee on PDS that submitted its report to the Supreme Court in September 2009.

“….there is a web of corruption woven around the PDS by politicians, bureaucrats, transporters and officials of the Food Supplies Department and Civil Supplies Corporation. They are shameless people having no inhibition depriving the poor of their food.”

Another issue that has been raised in the current debate is whether the Lokpal institution itself cannot be corrupted. There is a distinct possibility of this. One instance in my own knowledge some time in early 1980s can amplify this issue. In a divisional engineer’s office, a peon asked for leave. The divisional accounts officer asked for a bribe of 150 to approve it.

The peon complained to the Anti-Corruption Bureau, who laid a trap and caught the accounts officer red-handed. Was he prosecuted? No, but his punishment came through a haranguing investigation leading to a settlement of 60,000 he paid as a bribe to the bureau officials to get the case squashed. In a perverse sense, this was democratisation of corruption. What did the peon do? Otherwise a simple and honest man, he started demanding bribes from anyone wanting access in the engineer’s office.

Today, the rates of bribe have gone up hugely as a sort of democratic right. In one instance, a patwari shocked an entrepreneur by demanding 50,000, instead of the usual 5,000, for issuing a patta for an authorised conversion of land from farm to commercial use where he was going to build a hotel. All possible directions from seniors did not move the patwari to settle for less and do his job, and the entrepreneur ended up paying it. The delay would have meant other problems.

These two instances point to lack of transparency and accountability in the system and its monitoring. In both the cases, there was no system to check the progress of matters by superiors, and this is systemic. This is aided by Article 311 of the Constitution, which provides a life-long insurance to civil servants from being sacked. If one looks around, we find that very few civil servants have been sacked.

The easy way out was to send them back to their home cadre as punishment. In one case this author knows of, the person was asked to resign. No effort was made to recover the huge wealth that had been accumulated. As far as politicians go, such as Sukh Ram, Antulay and many others, the track record is worse. Political compulsions do not allow prosecution, and the prosecuting machinery is influenced to go slow or weaken the charges.

This is what the proposed Lokpal will try and do, and by ensuring control over the investigative and prosecutorial machinery. The Lokpal Bills will now be debated before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Law and Justice. A refreshing and welcome change is that their proceedings will be public.

Having appeared before several parliamentary committees, it has not been a pleasant experience because their proceedings are not public and one is also cautioned that evidence submitted before them cannot be made public until the committee has submitted its report to the House. This author has always protested that when the House proceedings are public, how can a subsidiary body be opaque, but to no avail.

With the movement now on the Lokpal Bill that has already had a salutary impact on our economy and the governance system, we need to start a similar movement at the level of the states and our districts. Only then can we hope to arrest the pandemic of corruption.

The author is secretary general of CUTS International

This news can also be viewed at: