Millennium Post

Corruption and apathy

The recent report of the Transparency International which is a widely used indicator of sleaze in political parties, police, justice systems and civil services in different countries ranked India again 94th as it did last year. That India stood consistent in sleaze despite the widespread societal anger against mega scams that overwhelmed India’s cash deficient educated middle class by their sheer size is indeed surprising and  underscores the increasing realism that government is yet to walk the extra mile to combat the rising corruption. India’s modest score of 36 stands in sharp contrast with the respectable score of 63 of Bhutan that earned her the distinction of being the least corrupt nation among the south Asian countries. India is closer to Bangladesh’s score of 27 – the lowest among the south Asian countries. Corruption has been a scourge, which undermines development and the fight against poverty. It hurts the poor most. India’s millions of literate poor and highly literate middle class have been watching rather helplessly at the pace of concentration of wealth in the hands resourceful people. Disclosures made by many candidates contesting elections make many wonder if legislatures are getting out of bounds for people with meagre wealth. The spread and depth of corruption in India today have accentuated the societal divide; badly dented the cutting edge of administration and stifled the delivery of services. It has hastened nose-diving of credibility and dependability of even many old public institutions on matters like providing relief to the needy and even citizens’ entitlements.

Of late the Executive seems to be articulating its concern at the perceived activism of the premier investigating agency. Prime Minister and the finance minister spoke on the issue on the occasion of the 20th Conference of the CBI & State Anti Corruption Bureaux. Autonomy in investigation is already guaranteed, asserted the prime minister. He also assured further strengthening, if needed, to ensure that the investigating process is further insulated from external interference. He however, and, rightly, reminded that the CBI and other investigating agencies being part of the Executive need to be amenable to rules of oversight, supervision and control in organisational and institutional matters while enjoying operational autonomy. While acknowledging that economic growth also implied greater opportunity for corruption, prime minister sounded somewhat defensive by suggesting that the issue of corruption should be viewed in the correct perspective. We must maintain utmost vigilance in preventing corruption and do our utmost in ensuring transparency, accountability and probity in public life; but we should, he said, ensure that the work of nation building goes on at a quick pace. Prime Minister said, ‘I think our public debate needs to concentrate a little more on what it would takes to make our progress even faster. I think it needs to concentrate more on how to improve infrastructure, how to improve the delivery of services and how to build institutions. It also needs to concentrate more on the achievements that we can legitimately be proud of. We can’t be all the time just running down institutions of governance because there have been cases of wrong doing.’ One may have difficulty to endorse such a view in whole. Rather it will be unmerited harshness to hold that public concern for the widely prevalent virulent corruption has slowed or stalled development of infrastructure. On the contrary, public outcry on the issue of corruption has been more of a wakeup call to ensure speedy nation building with probity.

Let us see how the present system is. Out of the two IAS officers of 1979 batch who are facing disciplinary proceedings over disproportionate assets issue, while one had served in the prime minister’s office and held the position of Development Commissioner, Handicrafts in the Ministry of Textiles & Handicrafts and later served in the Federation of Indian Export Organisation, the other had served in the Ministry of Coal, Railways and also in the Ministry of Defence. This illustration points to the prevailing system of choosing officers for various assignments. On what consideration does an officer get posted in Ministry of Defence and another in the Ministry of Statistics & Programme Implementation? Should the present system continue? How effective is the prevailing system of verification of antecedents or a check on the reputation of the concerned officer? An officer does not turn corrupt overnight. The officer’s sense of rectitude and integrity can and should be verified professionally and correctly. Finance Minister referred to the contribution of an IPS officer who was brought into the SEBI some years ago as Executive Director. This Officer pioneered many innovations in the SEBI. An investigating agency, Finance Minister rightly suggested, must build capacity. ‘I have no doubt’, he said, ‘that a trained police officer is capable of handling financial crimes. There is a strong degree of commonality among all kinds of crimes, and enforcement processes are similar.’ He highlighted the need for bringing a variety of skilled persons into the investigating agency and suggested that the CBI must recruit bankers, accountants, lawyers, insurers, fund managers and securities experts, train them in the substantive and procedural laws, and turn them into first rate investigators. It is time a serious look was given to the manner of selection of officers for posts in various ministries as well. There is a widely held view that officers of other services found fit to be empanelled as joint secretary and above get a very small share of the available posts in various ministries where as the lion’s share goes to the IAS. Continuation of this practice has prevented the system from the benefit of the rich and varied experience of officers of other services.

Anti corruption bureaus of various states keep registering more trap cases while fewer cases on disproportionate assts are taken up. For example, in Andhra, the Bureau registered 309 trap cases this year as against only 19 Disprortionate Assets (DA) cases. How rich are some of the corrupt officials? In 2008 the Andhra Bureau unveiled huge assets of an engineer with the fisheries department whose disproportionate assets reportedly amounted to Rs 23 crore. By and large, officials booked in ‘trap’ cases are lower and middle-level government officials while DA is the only tool which lends itself to expose the high and mighty including the officers belonging to the All India Service (AIS) cadre. Greater focus on trap cases entails less work but has a higher conviction rate. The processing period for a trap cases is very less compared to a DA case. Conviction rate in DA cases is low. DA cases nee sustained investigation and unearth Benami assets. We have to show our determination to unearth much more cases of brazen illegal enrichment and demonstrate our ability to punish such corrupt officials.

Investigation needs to be done professionally rather than loudly. There needs to be willingness to accept a view that charge sheet should be filed only in a case where there is preponderant possibility of a conviction. We need to opt for a regulatory arrangement that promotes objective decision-making and makes honest officers rather than the dishonest ones feel protected.

Investigating agency must avoid the temptation of questioning policy. Government is yet to come out with an unambiguous policy on zero tolerance to corruption. We must appreciate that pace of nation building is much faster where honesty prevails. India’s bureaucrats would do well to say ‘Probe our wealth; not our decisions.’

The author is former coal secretary
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