IF 2010 will be known as the year of scams, 2011 could well be the year of Lokpal, thanks to the agitation spearheaded by Anna Hazare, a social worker inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of Gram Swaraj ( village development) and Suraj ( good governance). He had earlier fought for the Right of Information Act in Maharashtra which became a model for the Central government later on. He had also agitated against corrupt officials and politicians in the Maharashtra State.
The year 2010 saw the unveiling of many scams almost simultaneously – the first was Adarsh Housing Society which was built on Defense land by breaking environmental and coastal protection acts for the benefit of top defense personnel, politicians and bureaucrats; it was soon followed by 2G Spectrum scam when the minister of telecom again broke many norms to award the licenses to his favourite businessmen at a loss to the exchequer and to the profit of his friends and relatives; then came the Commonwealth Games scam where almost every item was purchased at higher than market price and almost every facility had cost and time over-run.
In all these cases, wheels of justice started moving only after some concerned citizens petitioned to the courts and the Opposition boycotted a whole Winter Session of the Parliament. Just before the Budget Session, the government agreed to appoint a JPC ( Joint Parliamentary Committee) to find out the lapses in the allotment of licenses which resulted in the loss of revenue to the tune of Rs 22,000 crore ( CBI estimate) to Rs 1,76,000 crore ( CAG estimate).
A short history of corruption in India
No wonder that people came out in droves to support the agitation started by some public-spirited citizens under the leadership of Anna Hazare. Most of the people in the country are personally aware of the corruption in government services – pot-holed roads, government hospitals without medicines, absentee teachers in government schools, sub-standard foodgrains in ration shops, speed-money to get a ration card or a driving license and a host of other services. India ranks 87 among 178 countries in the Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. It estimates the monetary value of petty corruption in basic services such as education, healthcare, judiciary, police to be about Rs.21,068 crore ( US $ 4.7 billion) per year.
What is appalling is not just the corruption but the efforts to cover it up by the state without taking any action to find the guilty and punish them. Some of the big corruption cases in the last two decades are : JMM bribery case; Bitumen case ; HDW submarine case; Kerala SNC Lavalin scandal ; Fodder scam; Telecom (Sukh Ram) case; Hawala Scandal; Oil-for-food scam; Telgi case; Taj Corridor case; Satyam case; Cash-for-vote case; Madhu Kota case. Then there is the famous Bofor’s case. In most of these cases some of the top bureaucrats and top politicians are involved. None of them have been held to account and punished. Some of the cases are still under investigation and some are in the courts. It is true that some people have been convicted, but not politicians or bureaucrats whose patronage is necessary for all these illegal activities.
Corruption started in India with the planned economy which resulted in what is rightly called ‘permit-license raj’. This gave enormous powers to the ruling politicians and the bureaucrats and this led to corruption and black money in the country. Prohibition and the ban on the import of gold (both done with good intentions) gave impetus to them. Highest marginal taxation on income to the extent of 97.5 per cent gave additional incentive to the businessmen to create not just black money but also to keep it away in tax havens such as Switzerland.
Even after liberalisation of the Indian economy, businessmen have to go to the officials for many permits and licenses for industries such as mining and infrastructure such roads, ports and housing colonies. These provide many avenues for misuse and corruption.
An international watchdog which conducted a study on the subject states that India has been drained of $ 462 billion (over Rs 20 lakh crore) between 1948 and 2008 which is about 40 per cent of the India’s GDP. In the last few years, USA has persuaded the Swiss banks through legal and political means to reveal the names of the US account holders and has taken action against their nationals for evading taxes in USA. No such effort seems to have been made by the Indian government which gives rise to the suspicion that some of the prominent businessmen and politicians may be having Swiss bank accounts.
Laws against corruption
Presently there are two laws against corruption indulged in by the public officials (bureaucrats, ministers and even Members of the Legislature): The Indian Penal Code (1860) and the Prevention of Corruption Act (1988). However, investigating agencies set up by the Central and the State governments have to get prior sanction of the concerned government or the competent authority to initiate proceedings in the court of law. However, there is no law or rule which stipulates a time-frame for sanction.
Recently we were made aware of the fact that the secretary of the government proposed to be appointed as CVC (Chief Vigilance Commissioner) was one of accused in a bribery cases for nearly 20 years. He was neither exonerated nor punished within a reasonable period of time. In the meanwhile, he was promoted periodically and even appointed as the next CVC. What is the use of the corruption laws if they are not enforced within a time-frame?
Many committees and commissions starting with the first Administrative Reform Commission (ARC) in 1966 have proposed the appointment of Lokpal and Lokayukta for speedy and effective investigation of corruption charges by bureaucrats and politicians within the frame-work of the constitution. This was based on the success of the office of Ombudsman in countries such as Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland.
In India, the first Lokpal Bill was introduced in 1968. After it lapsed with the dissolution of the Lok Sabha, it was tabled seven more times without being passed due to lack of consensus. However, some of states have appointed Lokayuktas without suo motto powers and the power to prosecute. They can only submit a report to the government and ask it to act.
There was no agreement whether the office of the prime minister should be kept in or outside the purview of Lokpal. Then there is the question of judiciary. The PM did not stop the telecom minister from short-selling 2G Spectrum due to ‘coalition dharma’. Some of members of the judiciary have been in the news for wrong reasons. Now the Parliament has only one weapon against the PM and that is a non-confidence motion, and against the higher judiciary, impeachment. They cannot be invoked most of the time. However, bringing these two top offices of our Constitution under the purview of Lokpal would not be the right thing. The legal experts have to come up with a proper solution for these issues which were not envisaged by the makers of our Constitution.
Nobody was punished in the JMM bribery case though it was well known that money was paid to get the votes in the no-confidence motion. The Supreme Court did not like to interfere with the functioning of the Parliament or infringe the privileges of the members, and the Parliament failed to take any action. The Indian citizens still remember the heap of currency notes on the table of the Lok Sabha during the voting on Indo-US Nuclear Agreement. Nobody knows the status of the enquiry on this issue.
The appointment of Lokpal should be based on the consensus between the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition to give credibility to the institution. CBI and CVC should be under the guidance of Lokpal and assist in the investigation and prosecution. It should have the power to file a case in a court of law. CBI and CVC heads also should be from among the penal of eligible candidates selected by the PM and the Leader of the Opposition to ensure impartiality. The most of the corruption cases have not resulted in conviction as the heads of these institutions are the appointees of the PMO and change their stance to suit the needs of the political masters. The long history of the Bofors case without any tangible result testifies it. So also the two cases of wealth beyond their sources of income filed against two important politicians in UP.
Anna Hazare’s hunger strike
As a civilised society, we have to evolve a mechanism to address the grievances of all sections of the people. It is a challenge to the Indian Republic which assures liberty, equality and fraternity to all its citizens. There could be a committee of the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies to hear and redress grievances of all sections of the people before they snowball into violent protest.
Anna Hazare represents the frustration of the people with the pervasive corruption in the political system. It is sad that many politicians, columnists and intellectuals have not understood the disgust of the people with the continuing saga of corruption in every sphere especially for the last few months.
All that Anna Hazare asks for is the constitution of an institution, Lokpal, with the power to investigate, prosecute and punish the corrupt within a reasonable time-frame. He wants a non-partisan selection body. Is this demand undemocratic?
‘How to rule the rulers?’
‘How to rule the rulers?’ has been the most important question of politics since the dawn of history.
If the Indian democracy has failed to deliver good governance, it is mainly because of corruption in the polity and illiteracy among the masses. Democracy is further distorted by money and muscle power used to get elected. The politicians come up with new methods of misguiding and enticing electorate. It is there for all to see in the recent Tamil Nadu election.
Loknayak Jayaprakash Narayan had said long ago that election process is the ‘gangotri’ (source) of all corruption. Expenditure during the election by the candidates and the parties has made contesting an election a play of the rich.
There is an urgent need to bring down the expenses incurred by the candidates through state funding and to exclude candidates with criminal activities.
It is not just the Election Commission, but all the political parties and the civil society (NGOs, Corporate Sector, Educational institutions) have to come together to retrieve the sanctity of the ballot box. It is not just the rise of India among the comity of nations that is a stake but the welfare of millions is involved in the ballot box. After 40 years of planned economy and 20 years of liberalization, more than 300 million people are below the poverty line.
Towards good governance
It is true that the institution of Lokpal will not dramatically change every day life of a common man since corruption has seeped into the fabric of life. If Lokpal can instill the fear of law among the top rang of our state and stop illegalities, it would definitely have a demonstration effect on the lower rungs.
The institution of Lokpal is not sufficient to usher in good governance. It requires imaginative schemes to redress the grievances of the people and promote welfare of the poor. The following are some of the programmes initiated by the State governments to promote public welfare.
Mid-day meal programme of Tamil Nadu ; Employment Guarantee Scheme of Maharashtra; e-governance in Gujarat which includes attending to public grievances by the CM himself through conference calls along with the top bureaucrats every month and taking action immediately; Ladli-Laxmi and Kanyadan programmes and the Public Services Guarantee Act of Madhya Pradesh ; Distribution of cycles to girl students by the Bihar government ; Housing programme for poor in Andhra Pradesh; Improvement in the PDS system in Chhattisgarh. MP Online provides 130 services such as birth certificates, examination forms and many others.
Good governance has eight elements, according to ESCAP (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific) and they are : participatory, consensus oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable, inclusive and the rule of law.
Swaraj is my birthright said Lokamanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak before Independence. Now we, the citizens of free India, have to say, Suraj (good governance) is our birth-right and we shall have it. And we have to remember that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, equality, fraternity and prosperity.