CORRUPTION is the flavour of the season and everyone wants to fight it. There are hints that an all-powerful Lokpal will be a bulwark against the menace, which has been eating into the vitals of the body politic. But is there a sure-shot remedy for corruption when the “corrupt” are drawn from all sections of the people, though many of them may not even recognise their guilt, let alone atone for it?
Let’s assume that a strong Lokpal is in place. It will look into complaints against Central government employees. There are over 40 lakh of them from the President of India to the postmen who reach every nook and cranny of the country. Let’s also assume that 10 per cent of them are corrupt and complaints are made against them. There will be four lakh complaints in one year.
The Lokpal should have a large set-up of incorruptible staff to investigate such a large number of cases. From where will it bring the requisite staff with impeccable integrity? From the state polices? And who will superintend the Lokpal? One of the draft Bills says the Lokpal should be one against whom there are no charges of corruption and who has a proven record of fighting corruption. Is there even one IAS officer who fulfils this criterion? The Lok Ayuktas have been in place for decades. Have they reduced corruption in the states?
Recently this writer attended a seminar on “Corruption: symptom or disease?” where the participants included Dr JK Jain, a former MP and BJP leader, Ms Anupama Jha, Executive Director, Transparency International, and Fr Babu Joseph, spokesman of the Catholic Church. It was moderated by Mr HK Dua, MP and former Press Advisor to Prime Minister AB Vajpayee. They all belonged to various religious traditions but they had no difficulty in reaching a consensus on how to fight corruption.
They all said there should be a moral reawakening which has to begin at home. Children need to be inculcated values which will stand them in good stead as they play their rightful roles as citizens of this country. In other words, character is what matters most in the fight against corruption.
One national newspaper carried short interviews with several people who attended an anti-corruption rally in the Capital. Everyone was asked one question about the last time they paid a bribe. In most cases, they recalled that they had to bribe the traffic constable. It did not occur to them that it was for some violation of the traffic rule that they were caught. They paid bribe as it was cheaper than the government-stipulated fine. Does a person, who violates rules and compounds his guilt by paying bribe, have any right to speak against corruption?
Those who believe that corruption is a recent phenomenon would be disabused of such beliefs if they read academic Upendra Thakur’s book “Corruption in Ancient India”. It flourished even in those periods when everything was supposedly hunkydory.
Few would have heard about the Dharma bull which symbolises morality. It stood on four legs in the Satya Yug that preceded the Treta Yug, when it lost one leg. In the later Dvapara Yug, it lost one more leg. In the present immoral Kali Yug, the bull stands on one leg. By now, I am certain the poor bull would have lost even the fourth leg.
Are there no solutions? Editor and BJP MP Chandan Mitra begins his book “The Corrupt Society” by narrating a visit he made to Patna where the booking clerk at the Patna Junction manages to get a tenner from him, though the State Vigilance Commissioner had recommended release of a berth from the government quota for his journey to Kolkata.
He is honest enough to admit that he did not have any qualms of conscience that by availing of a berth in this manner, he deprived another person in the waiting list of a chance to travel in comfort. Nowadays one can book a ticket from the comforts of one’s home, if one has access to the Internet. And for VIPs, there are quotas, released at the eleventh hour on certain criteria.
Though chances of corruption cannot be ruled out entirely, the present system marks a sea change from the days when the booking clerk would claim, after cursorily looking at a register, that no seat was vacant. One either believed him or paid him a bribe to get a seat. It is technology and transparency that have liberated the rail traveller from petty corruption. To bring home the point further, if you have a house in Delhi, you can find out the exact house tax by feeding certain data into the Muncipal Corporation website. You can also pay the tax online. Middlemen have been eliminated and so is corruption.
The Right to Information is a powerful weapon in the hands of the people to fight corruption. Nothing rattles a bureaucrat more than a question that would expose his wrong-doing. Little surprise, efforts are on to whittle down the right. Implementation of the RTI Act shows the need for greater transparency.
The daughter of one of my colleagues topped in the Civil Services Examination a few years ago and she chose the Indian Administrative Service. She was happy that she got the Karnataka cadre. Her father told me that few IAS officers would like to be in the Kerala cadre because, as he put it, “the people are very educated and the media is so powerful that it is impossible to use official vehicles for private purposes”.
That is why, even without the Lok Pal, powerful politicians like Suresh Kalmadi and A Raja are now cooling their heels in Tihar Jail. Greed is central to corruption. An IAS couple in Madhya Pradesh was found to have amassed wealth to the tune of Rs 320 crore. Why did they need so much money? An officer, who retires from the IAS, gets between Rs 40,000 and 50,000 as Dearness Allowance-linked monthly pension. This is in a country where the per capita income of an Indian after 20 years of economic reforms is just Rs 1750.
It’s the people’s greed that the operators of “money chain schemes” and the Internet fraudsters exploit to line their pockets. Corruption keeps growing in India because we, Indians, exploit one another’s weaknesses and needs. But was this the situation always? American writer E Stanley Jones, a winner of the Gandhi Peace Prize, doesn’t need any introduction.
In his book “Mahatma Gandhi: An Interpretation”, first published in 1963, he gives expression to his thoughts as he sits in the gallery of the opening session of the Constituent Assembly: “Below us there sits a thousand years of jail. These men could be matched with any other group in the world in integrity and ability and self-sacrifice. In the last named self-sacrifice, they would go far beyond any other group”.
Elsewhere in the book, he narrates an anecdote: “A man expatiated eloquently on the self-sacrifice of the Congress leaders and, then, as he was about to leave the railway compartment, reached up, unscrewed an electric-light bulb, put it in his pocket and said, “I need it” and walked out”. Once in Bhopal, while getting my scooter serviced, I noticed a Royal Enfield motorcycle with a rexine seat cover that had “Railways” embossed on it. It belonged to the local police station in-charge!
Chandan Mitra’s study traces the history of corruption in the subcontinent, from the time of Kautilya to the Mughal era, the East India Company days and finally post-Independence India. Corruption is not as hopeless as some people think. It can be curtailed, if the right conditions are created.
Warren Hastings as Governor-General indulged in corruption and was even tried for it. But when Charles Grant and William Wilberforce began to exert their moral influence on British Parliament and the Crown, the administration in India began to be transformed.
Mitra attributes the sudden drop in the level of corruption to the introduction of the civil service to which young men, blessed with intelligence and imbued with passion to serve in distant lands, were recruited. Let’s not forget, it was William Carey, who taught generations of British administrators as Professor of Oriental languages in the College of Fort William, who imparted values in them that Mitra extols.
Today we may not remove electric bulbs from trains because they have been replaced by flourescent tube lights that cannot be fitted at home. But we will gladly throw our waste on the road, jump the red light and pay the constable a small sum, rather than the fine that goes to the exchequer, and buy goods without paying taxes. Yet, we want our leaders to be as white as lily!
Greater transparency in administration, quick and sure punishment for the corrupt, confiscation of unaccounted wealth, zero-tolerance for corruption, time-bound clearance of all files, and recognition for the honest are some of the ways in which corruption can be fought. But it has to begin at home, with the parents setting examples for their children. In other words, each of us should be a one-man army to fight corruption. Are we prepared for it?
(The writer is a senior New Delhi-based journalist