Ending Corruption? How to Clean Up India: N Vittal, Penguin Viking; Pp 256, Rs 499.00
IF anybody can be described as an authority on corruption, surely it is N Vittal. He belongs to the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and, following his retirement, he got appointed as the Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC), the first one to be offered the job and served it with distinction for four long years (September 1998 to September 2002). He says modestly that he has “some idea of what corruption is all about”. Instead of cynically accepting it, he claims to have “tried to stand back and reflect as to what the alternatives may be”.
This work is an obvious consequence of his reflections. As he sees it, treating the issue of corruption as the disease of the whole body may provide “better long-term solutions than a purely legalistic policemen’s approach”. Thus he comes to the conclusion that corruption is a case of “multiple organ failure”. How does he handle it? As he sees it, corruption, in its broadest sense is the lack of integrity.
Take this one instance (Vittal quotes several): according to the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), in the 2G scam, the Government lost Rs 1,76,000 crore. The 1991 Telgi Scam was to the tune of Rs 43,000 crore. The Harshad Mehta Security Scam caused a loss of market value to the tune of 1,00,000 crore rupees. Involved in another scam was a Chief Minister, during a time of acute shortage of cement. The CM set up a Trust and received Rs 30 crore as pay-off from companies, which went into this private Trust, Vital quotes several other cases. How are they to be treated? To blame the police made no sense. Vittal remembers the time when as Additional Chief Secretary (Home) in Gujarat he saw the “pathetic living conditions of the constables” some of whom lived in slums owned by bootleggers.
There was an expose of a defence contractor, who had made a profit of Rs 1 crore in a defence deal. No action was ever taken against him. Asks Vittal: “If the authorities do not take action even when violations of law are brought to their notice, how can they be made to implement their mandated functions?” Vital refers to illicit financial flows from India to countries like Switzerland, to criminals getting into Parliament taking advantage of legal shortcomings, politicians controlling bureaucracy to their own advantage, delay in judicial processes that are in favour of the corrupt, in abundance. Facts and figures are liberally provided. Names are named. Even the media is damed, with Vittal noting that “the harsh reality is that the media now is mainly a business enterprise”.
So, where do we go from here? Vittal has many vital points to make? He wants “closer examination of accountability in our public services, transparency in dealing with corporations, broadening of tax base and amendment of rules so that tax authorities will have no alternative but to initiate action whenever information about black money or massive tax evasion is brought to their notice. Vittal is quite clear about how to deal with black money. According to him enormous wealth accumulated illegally should be confiscated.
He had moved the Law Commission to enact the Corrupt Public Servants Acquisition of Ill-Gotten Wealth Act, which had been drafted as long ago as 2002, but shamefully has been pending with the Government. Such a law, Vittal insists, should also cover money stashed away in foreign tax havens. Sadly he notes that “politicians and others who are benefitting from the current legal position are not likely to pass such a law”. Among other ideas Vittal puts forth is one that suggests that “the rules of general banking secrecy need to be relaxed”, because such secrecy aids the generation of preservation of black money”. Bank Unions have long been demanding that major defaulters of bank loans need to be exposed and punished but banks have resisted this and the Reserve Bank of India has been taking a stand in support of the banking secrecy tradition.
Asks Vittal: “If this secrecy goes against public interest, isn’t it time that changes were brought about in the laws?” Good question. Then there is the matter of corrupt politicians standing for elections. In elections to five State Legislative Assemblies in 2011, it was found that 25% of candidates (204 out of 813 analysed) had criminal cases pending against them. Of the 204, actually 83 had ‘serious criminal cases’ pending against them. As Vittal put it: “How can we preserve the legislators’ institutional integrity, if a convicted criminal participates in the framing of laws to govern the country?” He argues such candidates should be debarred from contesting elections.
The control of politicians over the bureaucracy includes, as Vittal makes it plain, is “the power to regulate whether the police, including the CBI, can conduct investigations against them in corruption cases”. Even the CBI cannot investigate the corruption charges against officers at the Joint Secretary level and above, without the specific approval of the Government. Then how can the public ever expect justice if top officials can do what they want, either on their own or at the Minister’s bidding? The point was specifically made, says Vittal, by a former Director of the CBI, DB Karthikeyan, who, at the height of the 2G crisis said in a TV interview that “at the end of the day, the CBI was a department of the Government of India”!
Sadly, Vittal notes that in every state, the police is one of the most politicised organs of the bureaucracy. According to Vittal, the independence of the police in the investigation of crimes can be ensured only by (a) ensuring a fixed term for those holding key sensitive posts and reducing political interference in their appointment and functioning, (b) by fostering the evolution of vigilant NGOs and civil society organisations, and (c) by encouraging and welcoming the media to act as a watchdog.
It is heart-breaking to read this book that registers all sorts of crimes. Can one imagine how people below the poverty line had to pay Rs 883 crore to get the benefit of anti-poverty schemes designed specifically to help them? The most endearing aspect of the book is that Vittal not only tells us what has gone wrong but what can be done through various ways to see that corruption is not only controlled but is eliminated. And for that he deserves our approbation.
(Penguin Books (India) Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017)