The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 15, 2000

Taking corruption by its horns
By P. Lal

J.S. Bawa, the former Director, Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), was once asked, way back in 1983, whether corruption had gone up or gone down, in this country. He responded by saying, "I am unable to reply to that question, for I do not know the answer. However, I can say with confidence that but for the CBI, corruption would have been more today than what it really is".

Be that as it may, common perception among the people is that corruption has not only increased but has increased by leaps and bounds.

Chief Vigilance Commissioner N. VittalCorruption is eating into the very care of our society, and if effective steps are not taken to stem it, the democratic structure of our country may crumble. Corrupt societies have perished in the past and would perish in future, as well.

The Santhanam Committee on the Prevention of Corruption, set up by the Government of India in 1962, while tracing the genealogy of corruption from the days of Kautilya’s Arthasastra, remarked ruefully, "the people of India rightly expected that when governance of the country passed into the hands of the disciples of the Father of the Nation, who were in their own individual capacities known for high character and ability, governments in India, at the Centre and the states, would set up and achieve a standard of integrity, second to none in the world, both in political and administrative aspects. It has to be frankly admitted that this hope has not been realised in full measure". The Committee further observed, "there was a growth of belief that while governments were against corruption, they were not against corrupt individuals, if such individuals had the requisite amount of power, influence and protection". If that was the situation in 1962-1963, we could well imagine what it might be like now.


The Vohra Committee, set up in July, 1993, had concluded that "the various crime syndicates have developed enough muscle and money power and established linkages with governmental functionaries, political leaders and others to be able to operate with impunity (as already exemplified by the activities of the Memon brothers and Dawood Ibrahim).

The Santhanam Committee on the Prevention of Corruption had also referred to the fact that corruption was rife in British public life till a hundred years ago and in the USA till the beginning of this century. However, democratic processes, strong public opinion and gradual withdrawal of the state from many of the activities and services removed corruption completely, specially at the cutting edge level.

In its widest connotation, corruption includes improper or selfish exercise of power and influence attached to a public office or to the special position one occupies in public life. In that sense, it is not limited to public servants alone, but extends to all those who misuse their position and try to subvert the integrity of a public servant. There is no dearth of such persons in India — friends and relatives, school and college pals, the godmen, swamis and babas, the fence sitters, the power-brokers-who constitute a coterie around the power centre, at all levels, and who corrupt the decision maker.

Moral values of the society, therefore are important in determining the extent to which its public services are corrupted and debased. There is no denying the fact that in spite of the strong moral fibre of our freedom struggle, the post independent India has gradually degenerated into a society that believes in "might is right", ends justify the means", "all that glitters is gold and "get rich quick".

Forty years ago, young entrants to the IAS and the IPS did not talk of dowry. Now, they not only talk of it, they are party to their parents’ haggling over the issue. The going rate may touch an amount ranging from Rs 30 lakh to Rs 1 crore.

The best way to fight corruption is to set an example oneself. Organisations headed by honest officers have very few dishonest people down the line. "There is large consensus of opinion that a new tradition of integrity can be established only if the example is set by those who have the ultimate responsibility for the governance....", concluded the Santhanam Committee, in 1963.

Lunch and dinner arrangements made by subordinates for touring officers has become the order of the day now. Arrangements have to be made not only for the boss, but also for his P.A. and peon, and the whole retinue of his security staff which in certain parts of the country constitute a sizable segment of the staff which descend upon the district or the sub-division along with the touring officer. Such unauthorised expenditure is at the root of the evil of corruption.

The procedures and practices in the working of government offices are cumbersome and dilatory and contribute to a large extent to the prevalence of corruption. They have also given rise to what is known as the "speed money". The person who bribes in such cases, does not wish anything unlawful to be done; he merely wants to speed up the processing of his case at different levels. "Speed money" puts wheels to the file. Such a corrupt practice is mostly met with in cases relating to the grant of licenses, permits etc.

Besides the simplification of procedures and cutting down on the decision-making levels which may not be generally more than three, transparency in the working would go a long way in minimising corrupt practices. In most of the cases, no secrecy is involved in notings made by the dealing hands and concerned officers, and no public interest would be jeopardised if the person whose case was being dealt with knew as to what was being written about his case. The modern information technology is best suited to ensure transparency. In cases not classified as confidential, notings can be keyed in, on line, into a computer, networked to a master console at a central place in the office, on which any body can see the latest status of the case, and read the notings as the file (computer file) travels from level to level. In course of time, a person even at a distant station can access the information through computer net-working and need not visit the concerned office at all. Such a system would even do away with the maintenance of paper files, and would cut down on costs and avoid delays, for the authority competent to record the final decision would do so by keying in the same in the computer terminal available at his table.

Anti-corruption laws and vigilance organisations need strengthening, too. The Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, though an improved version of a similar Act of 1946, is not rigorous enough to instil fear in the minds of the corrupt. First of all, not many out of the corrupt are caught, and secondly, out of those booked, not many are convicted. A conviction rate of 60 to 70 per cent in corruption cases often trotted out, is misleading and creates wrong impressions. In most of the corruption cases, there is more than one accused person, some times as many as 20 or even 30 or more, and if even one of them is convicted, the case is shown as having resulted in conviction. The convicted person invariably files an appeal which may take any thing from three to 20 years to be decided in a court. Meanwhile, he remains on bail. The appeal may result in acquittal. There are good chances that by the time the appeal is decided, he may even die. No wonder, therefore, one hardly finds any person, and more so a person of consequence and influence involved in a corruption case, undergoing a prison term, as a result of conviction, in spite of the fact that several cases involving the high and the mighty receive tremendous publicity at the investigation stage.

It is not the quantum of punishment which is important. What is important is that a person accused of corruption is quickly and surely convicted, and undergoes an actual jail term, may be even for a year. When his conviction and consequent dismissal bring him disgrace, others would be deterred.

While it is important to ensure that the corrupt are caught and prosecuted, it is equally important to ensure that the honest are protected and not made to suffer because of frivolous and motivated complaints against them. In most of the departments, reputation of an officer is well known. Any complaint against an officer having reputation of being honest should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Most of the vigilance organisations are awfully short of trained manpower. Not many want to join and serve in such organisations for obvious reasons. They need protection also from corrupt officers whom they catch and prosecute, not so much in the physical sense as in terms of harm to their service career.

Vigilance organisations deal mainly with public servants. Not all of them are corrupt. Even those who are corrupt are no ordinary criminals. A system of checks and balances, therefore, ought to govern the functioning of such organisations, so that decision-making is not concentrated in the hands of just one person.

To sum up honesty is a virtue and corruption a vice. An honest man walks with pride. He has a sound sleep without a sleeping pill. His children generally don’t go astray. He has a face to show. Generations talk about him and draw inspiration from him. As against that, a dishonest man is faceless. People enjoy his hospitality and than talk ill of him behind his back. He walks like a thief. He is concerned about his safety and that of his ill-gotten wealth.

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