It’s not tough to fight graft

Joginder Singh
Former Director – CBI

If we look beyond the ongoing debate over the Lok Pal Bill, we will find fighting corruption is easy: Government should just do it!

A great advantage of democracy is that people perceive themselves to be the master of all subjects and believe that what they are proposing is the panacea for all evils. Two activists from different walks of life are now focussing on how to eliminate corruption from the country and how to bring back to India black money hoarded abroad.

Of course, any action or initiative which promises to lessen the misery of the common man, who is exposed to corruption all the time, is much welcome. But in the case of the Lok Pal Bill, attention has already been diverted from the battle against corruption to issues such as whether or not the Prime Minister should be under the Lok Pal’s purview. To solve any problem, you have to know as to what caused the problem, what bottlenecks are coming in the way of its resolution, etc, and only then can you resolve the matter.

Take for example the menace of Inspector Raj: Today, birth certificate, driver’s licence, ration card, passport, pan card, house or land purchase deed, etc, are all essential documents of record required almost on a regular basis for several purposes, either for admission or getting a job, or just to prove one’s existence. Apart from the Government fee that has to be paid, these documents come at a price, which one can label as ‘extortion’ by the Government employees. Indeed, if any evidence was needed to prove that corruption exists on a massive scale, one does not have to go too far from one’s doorstep to meet a municipal or health inspector or a police inspector waiting to wrest his pound of flesh.

Successive Governments, irrespective of the party in power, have talked about ending the ‘Inspector Raj’. But each law that they have passed has only added one more inspector. When Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee was Prime Minister he had said, “The ‘Inspector Raj’ harasses business enterprises. Compared to around five inspectors that a firm has to deal with even in a non-democratic country like China, businesses in India have to contend with anything from 30 to 40 (now 65) inspectors, at various stages of production, distribution and sale of goods.”

Mr Vajpayee had also pointed out, “In our country, there are Central, State and local inspectors duplicating and triplicating the work in most areas to enforce State or Central laws. The burden of Inspector Raj is made worse by corruption. Rather than ensure good corporate governance, such inspectors often end up as fund collectors for politicians and officials in power. A bonfire of inspection rules is called for.” More recently, on May 24 the present Education Minister said, “The Government is coming out with an Education Malpractices Act. We shall free higher education institutions of inspector raj.” It only illustrates that with a few exceptions, all transactions with the Government come at a price.

A culture of bribery exists at every level of the Indian bureaucracy. The Government is large and diffuse, and disinterested in employing a heavy hand to eradicate corruption. Especially when formulating law to deal with corruption, the Government not only leaves sufficient loopholes, but also builds in protection for the corrupt and dishonest as is evident in the case of anti-corruption agencies which require Government sanction before registering a case of corruption.

Government officials charged with corruption can only be prosecuted after an approval by the Union or State Government. However, by simply sitting on the proposals of prosecuting agencies, the relevant Government can easily slow down the process or make sure that the offenders are never prosecuted. This law was introduced by the British so that they could provide protection to their employee. More than once the Supreme Court has said that corruption is not a part of any Government official’s duty. But the observation of the apex court has had no effect and the law remains as it was during the British era.

Little wonder then that at the end of 2010, as many as 236 requests to prosecute public servants on corruption-related charges were pending with the Government of India. Between 2005 and 2009, only 6 per cent of the cases in which the CBI and the CVC found evidence of corruption were sanctioned for prosecution by the Government. Offenders in the remaining 94 per cent were let off with departmental penalties, some of them minor. The CBI, the Government’s premier investigating agency, is carrying a 30 per cent backlog in every rank. It is not that CBI does not want to fill the vacancies but a lengthy and self-defeating procedure is often used as an excuse to ensure that the CBI does not go full steam.

The hullabaloo surrounding the demand that the Prime Minister as well as higher judiciary should also be brought under the purview of the Lok Pal is not going to end corruption. The Prime Minister has said that he himself is not averse to the idea. But the point is whether or not in a democracy you can have an institution that supercedes Parliament. More than that how can you, in absolute terms, vest super power in one man who like other human beings is liable to err.

What is req uired is not only a simplification of laws but also dealing with the corrupt with a heavy hand, which no Government has ever done. The preventive aspect in the fight against corruption, which would also include empowering the people, is completely missing. We live in a world of uncertainty and despite all the ex-post facto analysis with every political party paying lip service to eradicating corruption, the Government has left the door wide open for the bureaucracy to milk the masses dry, who must unfortunately deal with it all.

The primary reason behind this is the impossible standards of proof, as prescribed by our legislators, to prove any case in a court of law. Why should the investigating agencies alone bear the burden of proof? Why not change the law so that the accused has to prove that whatever he or his family possesses is honestly acquired? According to one report, India has 34,735 laws, which we are expected to comply with. Given these existing laws which are pro-accused and pro-criminal, the Lok Pal cannot end corruption. Instead of giving the benefit of doubt to the accused, why not offer it to society? The Ministry of Environment has proposed a fine of Rs 1 crore and a five-year-long jail term for showing cruelty to animals, which is much higher than what the corrupt get in this country.

However, eradicating corruption in the country is not an impossible task, as it is made out to be. What our leaders have to do, and the way they have to do it, is incredibly simple. Whether they are willing to do it or not is quite another matter. In the words of the Nike advertisement, the Government should get out there and “Just do it”.