SUGGESTIONS MADE BY SOCIETY FOR PUBLIC INTERVENTIONSFOR INCORPORATION IN NATIONAL ANTI-CORRUPTION STRATEGY
It is obvious that a lot of effort has gone into preparation of this Draft Paper on National Anti-Corruption Strategy. The decision taken to formulate a strategy to combat the all-pervasive corruption in itself is indicative of the growing concern at the highest levels about the damage corruption has inflicted on the welfare, security and even the very survival of our country as a democratic entity based on rule of law.
2.It may be, however, well argued that the strategy proposed is neither bold enough, nor sufficiently adequate, to cause any sustained impact on the continually burgeoning corruption, but the Draft Paper prepared surely will serve as a reference-point to improve the strategy to tackle corruption and give a new focus to the efforts being made to achieve the objective. This may not be an accomplishment in itself, but there is no doubt that a crucial beginning in the right direction has been made.
3.A closer look at the proposed anti-corruption strategy reveals that while it makes a number of highly useful suggestions, it suffers from some deficiencies also. For example, the Draft NACS in its present format lacks focus. In the eagerness to make it look comprehensive, it endeavours to cover, in a rather sweeping manner, multi-dimensional aspects of the deeply embedded and complex cancerous growth of corruption in our social fabric and in the process it fails, on the one hand, to prioritise the thrust areas for implementation within a time-bound, dynamic and pro-active framework and, on the other, it offers at some places rather hastily considered solutions for improving the existing legal, institutional and administrative anti-corruption frame-work. In its said shortcoming, the Draft NACS becomes just another strategy paper unlikely to invite any serious attention, much less being capable of any focussed and result-oriented implementation process.
4.Another major flaw in its current formulation is that it is manifestly centric in approach, dwells mainly on the practices and institutional framework obtaining in the Central Government and glosses over- in fact, virtually ignores- the almost total inadequacy of any discernible anti-corruption apparatus or mechanism at the state, district and grass-root levels in most of the States. The Committee which drafted this Strategy Paper would have not been amiss if it had held meaningful, in-depth and inter-active consultations with the representatives of the State Governments so as to draw upon their experiences and formulate appropriate responses for holistic development of a sound anti-corruption strategy capable of implementation throughout the country. No anti corruption strategy will work unless the State Governments are taken on board and their active support secured for its effective implementation.
5.Apart from the aforesaid conceptual and structural flaws, the Draft NACS suffers from several serious omissions as well. One serious off-shoot of rampant corruption in our country has been criminalization of politics which has set in motion a vicious cycle of worst form of corruption in our body politic. In fact, the increasing number of persons, widely perceived to be hard-core criminals, being drawn to politics and the readiness on part of the political parties, even those proudly claiming to have all-India following, not only to accept them in an open embrace, but also choose them as their representatives in the Legislative Assemblies and in the Parliament and bring them at the very helm of affairs, is a clear manifestation of the rot that has set in our moral, social and political fabric. If this disturbing trend in our body politic is not speedily halted, the ‘criminalization of politics’ is bound to further degenerate and lead to ‘governance of criminals, by criminals and for criminals’ and yet the Draft Strategy is effectively silent on this disturbing development, much less offer any tangible solution!
6.The corruption at Political Executive level is yet another serious dimension of the all pervasive corruption in our country. The corrupt political leaders form an important link in the ‘politco-criminal-business’ chain (abetted, aided and supplemented by senior civil servants) for diversion of huge chunks of public funds for private gain. If this unholy alliance and nexus is not broken and the corrupt leaders are allowed to remain at the helm of affairs, the planning and decision making processes will always remain subject to distortion at their hands with an unbridled impunity and serious damage will continue to be inflicted upon the psyche of common man, his morale, his belief and trust in democratic institutions and his capacity to respect the rule of law. The old, oft-repeated axiom that “a public servant should not only be honest but also seen to be honest” is all the more relevant in the context of those at the helm of the affairs and in whose hands the very destiny of the country is entrusted. This cancerous growth in our body politic can not be eliminated by meek advisories or making appeals to their good conscience or by suggesting half-hearted reforms in our legal and electoral frame-work as proposed in the Draft National Anti-Corruption Strategy. The issue has to be met in a head-on manner as no strategy to combat what the Draft NACS has rightly termed as ‘grand corruption’ can succeed unless those at the Political Executive level are made accountable for their criminal mis-conduct in real terms and a system is established which, as a matter of course, jettisons such corrupt elements. After all why should a Minister in the Central or State Government or a Member of Parliament or State Legislative Assembly be allowed to continue to hold the office even after a court of law has framed criminal charges against him. The oft-repeated plea that a person is to be regarded to be innocent unless proven guilty is not relevant at this level of responsibility and in the context of expectations from the office such a person holds and the vast authority he exercises. This standard may apply to a common man, but surely not to those in whose hands the management of public wealth that controls the destiny of the entire nation has been entrusted. The greater the power one wields, the more rigorous and severe should be the standard of one’s accountability and equally prompt and speedy should be its dispensation. This may not be acceptable to our political leaders for their own narrow and partisan ends but no useful purpose would be served if an impartial group of peers refrains to make the point on the ground that it is unlikely to be accepted or would be unpalatable to our political masters.
7.There have always been lingering doubts in regard to the over all functioning of the sub-ordinate judiciary. But, the most alarming and sad development is the ever growing impression in the public mind that elements in the Superior Judiciary Wing, long considered to be the bastion of impartiality and integrity and genuinely regarded as the ultimate protector of an ordinary man from injustice and arbitrary exercise of executive power, might also not be so infallible after all. One incident of alleged corruption after the other reported in the press has indeed shaken the faith of the common man. This is an ominous development with an unprecedented potential to damage the very foundation of this nation beyond repair. A National Anti Corruption Strategy can not but take cognizance of this development. Of course, this is a very sensitive issue and any solution suggested to insulate the Judiciary on a continuing basis from the cancerous growth of corruption has to ensure in the first place that it does not directly or indirectly, and even remotely, lead to abridging the independence of Judiciary. It has to be recognised that the reform, and its implementation, must come from within the Judiciary itself and no attempt is made to impose it through any legislative intervention which is even remotely capable of being used by the Executive as proverbial camel in the Arab’s tent . The role of the Executive should remain restricted to suitably flag the issue and suggest an internal mechanism within the Judiciary to act its own watch- dog in a manner which is credible and inspires the confidence of the common man.
8.The Draft NACS has rightly emphasised the ‘supply’ side of corruption and the need to bring about specific legislation to provide an effective deterrent. It has also rightly suggested that a distinction be made between a bribe offered for deriving an illegal commercial benefit and the bribe given under coercion to avail of a facility which in any case is due to the bribe-giver. In so far as the former category of corruption is concerned, it has to be remembered that all private businesses without exception are carried out for profit. The driving force behind any private business is to make as much money as possible and maximise its profits. This has been the motivation for the private enterprise from times immemorial and this continues to be the primary motivation even now, notwithstanding the pompous jargon that might be used to the contrary. This is evident from the brazen manner in which the goods are advertised day in and day out on the electronic and print media with all kinds of false promises and impossible-to-achieve claims. In fact, this unbridled greed of private business even triggered the recent world-wide Economic Recession from the clutches of which the world economy has not yet been completely freed even after the Governments had to pump billions of dollars in these private banking entities for their revival. In this background, it is futile to suggest increased use of the instrument of Integrity Pacts (through which both the contracting parties – private supplier and the government department / PSU concerned- are essentially supposed to commit themselves to refrain from indulging in any corrupt practice during the procurement process) as an important break-through to combat corruption. It is equally futile in the Indian context to expect a private business, barring an exception here and there, to refrain from indulging in corrupt practices through any self-regulating mechanism. The likes of the previous management of ‘Satyam’ would have been laughing in their sleeves at these utopian solutions! In either case, we may as well rely on a daily half-hourly dose of meditation and ‘bajans’ for the benefit of the functionaries in our PSUs etc (and business houses) to act as a better cure against corrupt practices, and leave it at that. The solution lies in putting in place stringent laws free of loop holes, their timely enforcement and culmination of the whole process in bringing the culprits to book in a time bound manner.
9.The ‘petty corruption’ often occurs at the cutting edge and the interface between the citizens and service-providers being close and direct, it involves a large number of people and affects them directly, even though may be in a small way. Because of the vast numbers involved, this form of corruption is most damaging to any credibility in the Government’s willingness to eradicate corruption. There are persistent complaints that the citizens are coerced to give away bribes to secure even such routine services as ration cards, certificates of registration of marriages, registration of purchase of immovable property, conversion of lease-hold rights into free-hold rights in case of Government Housing Schemes, clearance to house-building plans, other routine municipal services and so on and so forth despite increased use of Information and Communication Technology in the delivery of these services. This form of corruption can be comprehensively curbed and eliminated if a fixed time-frame is laid down for the disposal of the applications and the pendency is reviewed by the supervising officers at regular intervals and the results displayed on the notice boards and websites for information of the applicants. The failure to adhere to the prescribed time-frame because of frivolous or dilatory reasons should entail automatic disciplinary action against the erring officials.
10.The Draft NACS rightly recognises the increasingly important role the regulatory authorities are going to play in the post-Economic Liberalization period and the substantial power these bodies have been vested with in their respective fields of jurisdiction. It also rightly recognises the vulnerability of these agencies to the lure of corruption. The recommendation that these agencies should evolve an in-house mechanism to monitor and curb any corrupt conduct is also acceptable so long as this is not made the sole mechanism to tackle the menace of corruption in these organisations. Of course, these regulatory bodies are required to function independently free from any interference from the Government, but in matters pertaining to corrupt practices they should be treated at par with the officers and employees of any other Government Department, as is the case in respect of the officers and employees of Constitutional Bodies like Union Public Service Commission, Comptroller & Auditor General of India, etc.
11.It would also increase the confidence of common man in the professionalism and integrity of these organizations if their Heads are appointed by a High level Committee under the Chairmanship of the Prime Minister, the Minister of the Department concerned and the Leader of the Opposition at par with the Committee constituted for appointment of the Central Vigilance Commissioner and some other high level posts. (This can be suitably duplicated by the State Governments in respect of similar appointments under their purview.) However, the selection by such a Committee will always remain a decision taken by the Government on its own as the representatives from the Government out-number the non-Government representative by two to one. If such an appointment process has to evince any genuine credibility about its impartiality, it should be based on unanimity and not on a majority vote. If there is no unanimity in respect of the candidates placed in the first panel, the exercise should be taken up afresh on the basis of an alternative panel and the decision taken by majority vote should prevail if there is still no unanimity in the Committee. It is also equally important that in order to ensure that these organisations function without any fear and favour, it is expressly provided in the relevant statutes that the persons appointed to head these organisations shall not be eligible after their retirement from service for any further employment under the Government including the office of Governor / Lt. Governor or any other Constitutional Office. The axiom that ‘a dog with a bone in its mouth does not bark but only wags its tail’ is relevant in this regard.
12.The Central Bureau of Investigation is undoubtedly the premier investigating agency in the country though it suffers from a highly restricted jurisdiction. It has won laurels on account of its professionalism and non-partisanship. Its independence has been to some extent ensured through a high-level selection mechanism of its Director and assigning to him a fixed tenure. But there still lingers a doubt that ultimately it is the ruling party in power at the Centre which dictates its functioning. This may be because of what is perceived to be a flip-flop stand the CBI is alleged to have taken on some politically high-profile cases. But credibility of this important and sensitive institution is bound to vastly improve if the incumbent of the post of the Director of this organisation is rendered ineligible for any further employment under the Government after his retirement or on expiry of his tenure, whichever is later as suggested in the preceding paragraph. There is another aspect in regard to this investigating agency which merits a special mention. Despite its high-level professionalism, the accusations of corruption at lower levels persist. It is highly desirable that a Special Cell, adequately staffed and empowered, is created within the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) and tasked to inquire into the complaints of harassment or corruption levelled against the officers and other investigating staff of the CBI. This will also ensure an element of externality in adjudging the conduct of the officers of this high profile investigating agency so necessary for it to preserve and maintain its reputation and credibility.
13.The Draft NACS has rightly stressed the need to increasingly involve civil society organisations in furtherance of anti-corruption work. In the Indian context there is, on the ground, some inherent hesitation on the part of departments to seek the participation of NGOs in any monitoring or evaluation work. The CVC may take the lead in establishing an appropriate frame-work for increased participation of non-government organisations in eradication of corruption.
14.In its concluding remarks, the Society for Public Interventions would suggest the following recommendations may be kept in view while giving the final shape to the proposed National Anti-Corruption Strategy:
(a) The National Anti-Corruption Strategy needs to be clear and focussed; it should identify the major thrust areas for improvement and action; and also recommend the relative priorities for their implementation / launch.
(b)The Draft NACS in its present format is manifestly centric in approach, dwells mainly on the practices and institutional framework obtaining in the Central Government and glosses over, in fact virtually ignores, the almost total inadequacy of any discernable anti-corruption apparatus or mechanism at the state, district and grass-root levels in most of the States. It is necessary that the State Governments are consulted so that a strategy truly national in character is evolved to fight the menace of corruption.
(c) Launching of a sustained awareness campaign in various formats to highlight the devastating impact the corrupt practices have on our social fabric, our psyche and our sense of values. This should include suitably crafted school and college curriculum, learning material at the induction stage in public services and in the in-service training programmes, well conceived radio spots and TV advertisements for general information of the members of public, children’s programmes, etc. This awareness programme needs to be given the same priority as attached by the Government to publicising small family norm, eradication of polio and other like programmes.
(d) Explicit recognition of the presence of the all permeating and pervasive corruption at various levels in our social fabric and creation of a separate Department of anti-Corruption at the Centre (and in the States) to tackle this menace, eating at the very vitals of our society, in a focussed and dedicated manner.
(e) Introduction of appropriate legal provisions by which a citizen against whom a criminal charge involving moral turpitude is pending before a court of law (and the charges have been framed against him by the court) is debarred from contesting election to a Local Body, Legislative Assembly and Parliament or hold the membership of a Gram Panchayat or District Panchayat or a Municipality or a Legislative Assembly or the Parliament or hold any public office under a Gram Panchayat or District Panchayat or Municipality or State Government or the Central Government till such time as he is finally exonerated of all the charges framed against him, and for a further specified period in case he is convicted.
(f) The persons appointed to head the regulatory bodies like TRAI and IRDA and to other key watch–dog positions including, amongst others, the office of the Comptroller & Auditor General of India, the Central Vigilance Commissioner, the Central Information Commission and the Central Bureau of Investigation should be allowed a fixed tenure without the provision for any further extension and they should be debarred from holding any other office under the Government including the assignments of Governor / Lt. Governor after their retirement or on expiry of their tenure, whichever is later.
(g) The appointments to key positions of the nature discussed above should be made by a High-level Committee consisting of the Prime Minister, Administrative Minister concerned and the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha by a unanimous vote and if there is no unanimity when the first panel of candidates is concerned and it becomes necessary to consider an alternative panel, the matter could be decided by majority vote if there is no unanimity again.
(h) The Government should flag the issue of the paramount need to insulate the Judiciary from the cancerous growth of corruption. While doing so, it should be explicitly recognised that the reform, and its enforcement, must come from within the Judiciary itself and no attempt is made to impose it through any legislative or executive intervention.
(i) The CBI can maintain its high degree of professionalism and insulate itself from corrupt practices on a long term basis only when there is put in place an externality for adjudging the conduct of its officers. This onerous responsibility can be adequately performed by an independent body like Central Vigilance Commission. The complaints of harassment and corruption against the officers of the CBI should be inquired by the Commission, for performance of which task it should be adequately staffed and empowered.
(j) The ‘petty corruption’ often occurs at the cutting edge and the interface between the citizens and service-providers being close and direct, it involves a large number of people and affects them directly. This form of corruption can be comprehensively curbed and eliminated if, apart from introducing computerization, an element of real- time transparency is introduced by fixing time-frame for the disposal of the applications for delivery of routine services, the pendency is reviewed by the supervising officers at regular intervals and the results displayed on the notice boards and websites for information of the applicants. The failure to adhere to the prescribed time-frame because of frivolous or dilatory reasons should entail automatic disciplinary action against the erring officials.
(k) The governance of a vast country like ours can not be left in the hands of Government and its official agencies alone. The role of non-government organisations in assisting the implementation of developmental programmes need not be over-emphasised in this context. The CVC may take a lead in establishing an appropriate frame-work for increased participation of non-government organisations in eradication of corruption.
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