India gets teeth against corruption

Posted in India | 27-Oct-05 | Author: Siddharth Srivastava| Source: Asia Times

Parliament buildings in New Delhi, India.
NEW DELHI - It is considered Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's most-pointed attempt at curbing corruption, which has reached pandemic proportions in the country. The Right to Information Act (RTI) came into force last week, giving Indians the legal right to seek information from government and aiming to curb corruption.

The new law is meant to curb corruption and inefficiency in the government at various levels and covers all central and state administrations, panchayats (traditional village institutions), local bodies and non-governmental organizations that get public funds. Under the act, the authorities are required to respond to queries in as little as 48 hours, if it is a matter of life and liberty.

The law aims to ingrain accountability and transparency in public functioning, as it specifically provides for hefty fines and disciplinary action against erring officials. The act becomes even more relevant as the government has planned a huge employment-generation program estimated to cost more than US$40 billion per year to be implemented at the behest of public functionaries across the country.

The act covers a wide range of information defined as "any material in any form including records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advices, press releases, circulars, orders, log books, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form and information relating to any private body which can be accessed by a public authority under any other law for the time-being in force."

The most potent aspect is the "provision of penalty" to ensure that government officials and all public authorities provide high priority to requests for information from citizens. Deterrent penalties have been prescribed for failure to provide information in time, refusing to accept application for information, giving incorrect, incomplete or misleading information or destroying information. The act, however, exempts security and intelligence organizations. The act places India among 55 countries that have such a legislation.

It may be recalled that India ranks among the most-corrupt nations in the world. Studies by the Berlin-based Transparency International (TI) and other indices such as the Corruption Perception Index have consistently ranked India as one of the worst as far as corrupt practices go. In the latest TI report, India secured a lowly spot at number 88 (out of 159 countries surveyed) of the most corrupt places on the planet, along with unlikely companion countries such as Gabon, Mali, Moldova, Tanzania and Iran.

The World Bank has labeled Delhi Development Authority, which oversees urban housing and commercial property in the national capital, as the most corrupt organization in India. The list of scams involving public servants, politicians, private businesses and individuals is an unending one - tehelka (bribe for party funds and defense deals), telgi (spurious stamp paper), fodder scam (embezzlement of funds for animal husbandry), coffin scam (purchase of coffins for dead soldiers), petrol-pump allotment scam, stock-market scam, have each been highlighted by the media. Yet, hardly does one corruption scandal die when another one surfaces.

There is a known mafia that controls tenders for railways, roads, power projects, electricity and property-development with any outside or new entrant into this closed field often met with brutal resistance. The case of Satyendra Dubey still rankles - Dubey was an engineer killed when he tried to expose the mafia that controls the national highway-development project. Apart from corruption at the institutional level, individual greasing of palms is required to procure a driving license, electricity or water connection, clearance of a residential plan, marriage, birth and death certificates, passport, lodging a report with the police ... the list goes on.

According to a recent report by International Finance Corporation (IFC), the investment arm of the World Bank, India has the "most bureaucratic red tape" in the South Asian region. "It [India] scores worst in time to register a business (89 days), difficulty of firing a worker (90 out of 100), delay in registering property (67 days), time for closing a business (10 years)," says the IFC's report "Doing Business in South Asia in 2005".

Further, India ranks second in the region for procedures and time required to enforce a contract, the report says. It takes three months to open a business in Mumbai. Two of the months are spent obtaining a personal account number from the income-tax department.

There have been various attempts to put a figure to the dimension of corruption: government loss of $50 billion due to tax evasion; $10 billion due to delay in projects due to bureaucratic red tape; the former prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, said that for every rupee spent by the government for development, less than a tenth of the amount actually reaches the beneficiary, and this too is an exaggerated figure. A recent survey suggests police officials across the country earn more than $400 million through bribes offered by truck drivers.

Corruption has been defined by the World Bank as the "use of public office for private profit". The former chief vigilance commissioner of India, N Vittal, said there are five major players on the corruption scene, interdependent, strengthening and supportive of the vicious cycle. They are the corrupt politician, bureaucrat, businessman, non-governmental organization and underworld criminal.

"A shortage of basic decent human life in India has forced a common person to be corrupt," Vittal said. "It is impossible for a common man to own a roof, provide good education to his children and hope for a peaceful retirement in India using normal and honest means."

"One has to bribe someone to get a good education, to get a deserving job and to avail services which one is entitled to as being a citizen of India. A low GDP growth for two decades and explosive population growth in the last 50 years has brought corruption to every sphere of life in India. With such a huge population and massive government control, everything seem to be in short supply."

This is not to say mechanisms are not being put in place and continuously upgraded to fight corrupt practices. The Indian judiciary, even if very slow and inefficient, does take on an important role from time to time, delivering as well as exhorting both private and government players to mind their businesses well in the public interest; the Indian media is vibrant and continually highlights instances of aberrant behavior of politicians, bureaucrats as well as private business concerns; vigilance and tax departments raid people with assets beyond their known sources of income; consumer courts have become active and take on cases on behalf of the harassed individuals; computerization as well as introduction of competition in many spheres of activity controlled by the government has brought about transparency as well as an attitude of service to the consumer/customer first.

The earlier assumption that the big fish invariably gets away has been debunked even as the media and the courts come down heavily on aberrant politicians and public servants. Yet, the enduring feeling is that corruption is inherent in our systems, and it is better to abide by it than try to beat it.

An editorial in the Times of India has rejected the IFC finding that the bureaucracy in Pakistan or China may be more business-friendly than in India. "Non-democratic states are by definition adhocracies run not on principles of social equity and respect for law but on the whims of the ruling elite. The very fact that democratic India has codified norms for doing business is a guarantee for fair-trade practice, which can't arbitrarily be short-circuited by all-powerful vested interests."

It is in this context that the RTI is being looked as a leap toward cleansing the functioning of public officials, though there is still a long way to go as the Indian bureaucracy is notorious for finding ways and means for its pecuniary survival. There are reports of government officials already looking at the creation of another mesh of information officers across the country. The RTI has clauses and exceptions that can provide an escape route, but there is no doubt the government official (referred to as the babu) is going to be facing some heat, for once.

Apart from putting institutional processes in place to check corruption, ultimately getting rid of the malaise of corruption is about attitude and the moral fiber of a society. A basic respect for human values and dignity is the only long-term solution.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.