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Fixing corruption

Systemic corruption in India can be fixed by making public servants accountable, argues Nagarajan Vittal.

Nagarajan Vittal | Print Edition: December 26, 2010

The year 2010 could qualify for Charles Dickens's description in A Tale of Two Cities - it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. This was the year when US President Barack Obama paid a Diwali compliment to all of us by saying that India is not an emerging power but has already emerged. Economists bet that, in the medium term, India will outpace China when it comes to economic growth. The elections in Bihar have been a political watershed, kindling the hope that good governance may become good politics in our country.

Unfortunately, this is also the year in which we witnessed an unprecedented number of scams and megascams: the run up to the Commonwealth Games, the Adarsh housing and 2G spectrum scams. The housing loan scam involving some public sector banks was the latest in the series (as this edition of BT closed).

Is there a fix for corruption? French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville made the perceptive comment: "The inevitable becomes intolerable the moment it is perceived to be no more inevitable." As an optimist, I feel that we seem to have arrived at such a moment of a basic shift in perception. All the Opposition parties have come together and blocked the functioning of Parliament for several days in the winter session to press their demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe into the 2G, Commonwealth Games and Adarsh housing society scams.

 Vittal's take

  • Corruption in our system of governance arises from lack of accountability
  • Article 311 must be replaced by a system of rolling contracts for public servants so that non-performers can be removed
  • Laws already enacted to rein in corruption must be given more teeth and implemented
  • The judiciary must dispose of all corruption cases within six months
  • Law-breakers must be prevented from entering the legislatures
  • The judiciary and the Election Commission must exercise their powers to bring about these changes
  • Citizens empowered by mobile phone cameras, RTI and 24x7 news channels must carry out sting operations
The Supreme Court, the Central Vigilance Commission and the Comptroller and Auditor General - independent agencies monitoring different aspects of governance - also seem to be acting in unison. There are other rays of hope. We already have the Right to Information Act, and the whistleblower protection Bill has been introduced in the Lok Sabha.

Information technology and the mobile telecommunication revolution have empowered the citizen in a unique way. Any citizen committed to exposing corruption can become a citizen journalist and carry out sting operations thanks to mobile handsets with cameras, instant dissemination and 24x7 electronic media hungry for rating points. The print media is not far behind. The Bihar election results showed that the politics of caste and identity could be on the way out.

But who will fix the system? Consciously or unconsciously, we have developed a system of governance that promotes, protects and encourages corruption in every sector of life. The basic cause for corruption in our system of governance is lack of accountability. Parkinson's law has ensured the increase in the size of bureaucracy leading to diluted responsibility. This, combined with the cast-iron job security provided under Article 311 of the Constitution, results in a total lack of fear. The first step needed for fixing the system is to systematically introduce a culture of accountability by holding individual public servants responsible. This will call for greater role and goal clarity. Article 311 must be replaced by a system of rolling contracts, so that non-performing public servants can be removed from service more easily.

Black money, unfortunately, is the lifeblood of our politics and business sectors such as real estate. The laws already enacted to prevent its growth must be implemented. Rules under the Benami Transactions (Prohibition) Act of 1988 for confiscation of benami property are yet to be framed. The Prevention of Money Laundering Act 2003 has a big loophole because the schedule does not include income tax, custom and excise laws as well as those relating to taxation at the Centre and states.

The Income Tax Act has more than 200 exceptions. Either personal income tax should be abolished, or we should have a noexemption rule in the Income Tax Act where income up to `5 lakh is exempted and a flat rate of 20 per cent levied above that. Our judicial system is very slow and the conviction rate in criminal cases is just six per cent.

This should be changed. The minimum that can be done is to have a law which makes it mandatory to dispose of all corruption cases within six months and allows only one appeal which should also be decided within six months. Lawbreakers must be prevented from entering the legislatures. Any candidate against whom charges have been framed in a court of law must be debarred from contesting the election till his name is cleared in the court.

Now, the question is, who will implement these changes? Independent agencies like the judiciary and the Election Commission must exercise their powers to bring about these changes. The CVC and the CAG can provide valuable support in bringing about this transformation.

Above all, citizens empowered by mobile phone cameras, RTI and 24x7 news channels must carry out sting operations so that the corrupt will think twice before accepting bribes.

The author was the country's first statutory Central Vigilance Commissioner


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