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Corruption at the Top of the Ladder

 

The CBI recently conducted simultaneous raids on the premises of A.P. Singh, a former Chief Secretary of UP, and reportedly unearthed ill-gotten wealth of more than 100 crores of Rupees. The CBI also claimed that this former bureaucrat owned more than 42 properties spread across three states in the names of various family members. In this connection it may be recalled that the IAS Association of Uttar Pradesh had earlier in a secret ballot (1996) named him as the “most corrupt civil servant of the state” but that did not affect the career prospects of A.P. Singh. When a delegation of IAS officers met the then Chief Minister of UP, Kalyan Singh and said that there was a case for probing into the acquisition of assets of A.P. Singh, Kalyan Singh straight-away refused to hold such a probe. Under successive Chief Ministers AP Singh, held important posts and his career progression was uninterrupted. Mulayam Singh made him the Chief Secretary of the state and even went to grant him an extension. The case of A.P. Singh typifies some characteristic features of political and bureaucratic corruption in India that make it far more sinister and damaging than corruption in other parts of the world.

1. Corruption in India occurs upstream and not downstream and this corruption at the top distorts fundamental decisions about policies, projects and developments.
2. Corruption in India has wings and not wheels. Very often corrupt gains are smuggled to safe havens abroad and not ploughed back to domestic production and investments.
3. As typically illustrated by this case, corruption often leads to promotion and not prison. In advanced industrial countries as well as in some countries of South-East Asia, notably Japan and South Korea, even the top leaders are not spared. The former Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxy had to live in exile in Tunisia to escape his extradition due to corruption charges at home.

Unfortunately, in India corrupt persons are too powerful and beyond accountability. Government departments have built up institutional mechanisms that perpetuate and not eliminate corruption. Upright officers are frequently transferred to unimportant posts or marginalized so that corruption chain is not delinked.

One of the main reasons why corruption has become so endemic and pervasive, especially among the public servants, is because it has become a high reward and low-risk activity. Very few public servants ultimately get punished. Some kind of a “law of jungle”, as a sociologist puts it, prevails. Over 4000 cases under the Prevention of Corruption Act are pending in different courts of the country. Sometimes junior officers or clerks are punished but senior officers are seldom brought to book. I have never seen in my long service career that any IAS or IPS officer has been charged, tried, convicted and served a jail sentence under various provisions of the Prevention of Corruption Act. It is reported that since 1990 Central Vigilance Commission granted sanction for prosecution against 100 civil servants, and so far only one has been convicted by the court of law. Besides criminal cases, departmental proceedings against senior bureaucrats drag on interminably and end in either acquittal or in minor punishment. This happens because procedure for disciplinary proceedings has become long-drawn and time consuming. While disciplinary proceedings applicable to the civil servants, observes Santanam Committee in its report, “are not dissimilar to those in several other countries, the proceedings for implementing dismissal, removal or reduction in ranks are far more elaborate and formal”. There is considerable weight in the recommendation of Santanam Committee that, “it should not be unreasonable classification to treat in a separate category charges of bribery, corruption and lack of integrity and provide for simplified procedure”.

Unfortunately, bureaucratic corruption prevails because of political corruption. The unholy nexus between corrupt politicians and venal civil servants is well known. This growing nexus between politicians and civil servants becomes apparent from the Central Vigilance Commission Bill, 2003, passed by the Parliament. It sets up a three-member vigilance commission, but makes the employees of central government at the level of joint secretary and above immune from any enquiry for any offence allegedly committed by them except with the prior approval of the central government. The only rationale given by the government for this differentiation is that it is essential to protect officers at the decision-making levels and relieve them of their anxiety and likelihood of harassment. Thus in the newly enacted law there are two groups of government servants, one comprising, those below the level of joint secretary and others of and above who are to be treated by different yardsticks on the basis that officers at the decision-making levels must be protected. The Central Vigilance Commission Bill is indeed an unconcealed attempt to derail the judgement of Supreme Court in the Vineet Narain’s case, which had earlier declared null and void the direction of the Central government known as the “single directive”.
The problem of political corruption, which engenders bureaucratic corruption, has been further compounded by the entry of criminals in politics. Many powerful criminals instead of playing the role of king-makers behind the scene are jumping into the arena of politics and trying to become political leaders themselves. They have both muscle power and money-power. There were about 40 tainted Members of Parliament in the 13th Lok Sabha and in the present 14th Lok Sabha there are about 100 such tainted Members. The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution recommended that the Representation of the People’s Act, 1951, (RPA) should be amended to provide that any person charged with any offence punishable with imprisonment, which may extend up to 5 years or more, should be disqualified from contesting the election. If a political party puts up such a candidate with knowledge of his antecedents, it should be de-recognised and de-registered. The National Commission further recommended that the criminal cases against politicians pending for trial or in appeal must be disposed of by appointing special courts. However, our political masters are in no mood to pay any heed to these recommendations.

The situation is further compounded by the fact that the instruments for fighting corruption are getting blunted. The charter for premier investigating agency of the country, namely, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), has been widened to deal with various other forms of crimes not connected with corruption. It is now saddled with all kinds of cases by the government and also the Courts. With a strength of 600-700 officers spread all over the country, CBI is not in a position to investigate and prosecute more than 1000 cases in a year. This hardly makes any dent, especially when such cases come up for trial after several years.
Anti-corruption wings in different states have also become politicized and fail to play any useful role in preventing corruption. The heads of anti-corruption wings of different states are used to further partisan ends by the ruling party. The vigilance chief is not permitted to submit charge sheet against senior government servants without the clearance of the government, and if the arraigned government servant is close to the power-that-be, the permission is invariably withheld. Recently the Central Vigilance Commission has made public “black list” of officers against whom sanction for prosecution has been needlessly delayed. In the majority of the cases the CBI has sent repeated reminders to Ministry and the Departments concerned to give the sanction but without any success. The Customs department alone, as reported in the press, is holding up sanction in 12 cases involving 55 officers who had been booked by the CBI in the year 2003.

In the case of Vineet Narayan, known popularly as the “Hawala” case the Supreme Court laid down some proceedings to insulate the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate from extraneous pressures. There is a similar need to identify other sensitive posts in the government, which can be filled up from a panel of names recommended by an objective and independent Committee and the composition of the committee can be different for different posts. Once selected the incumbent should have a minimum tenure of two to three years. This may bring about a change in the present situation in which the corrupt elements literally bribe their way to important posts. In a recent forthright interview the present Director of CBI has clearly admitted that the autonomy of the agency is a “myth” and there are constant pulls and pressures to go soft on sensitive areas. Nevertheless, the fixed term will give some elbowroom to the upright officers to withstand pressures. Further, Prevention of Corruption Act, 1986, should be revised to make it more effective. There should be provision to attach properties of government servants who are facing trials for acts of serious corruption and in possession of disproportionate assets.

The hard fact however remains that the foremost requirement in the battle against corruption is a strong political will and no anti corruption agenda will be successful if this is missing. Here lies the rub. The political will is sadly missing. The Bill to set up the institution of Lok Pal is gathering dust because of lack of political consensus. A powerful independent and effective institutional mechanism can play a significant role in curbing corruption. The Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) setup in 1974 in Hong Kong has done a remarkable job in reducing corruption and enabling Hong Kong to break out of the corruption trap. The then Governor Sir Murray Maclehose made it independent of any department and responsible only to him. From its inception ICAC has adopted a policy that anti-corruption work requires more than just investigation and prosecution. It has a branch concerned with prevention, which seeks to reduce opportunity for corruption and another whose task is to involve the public. The government indicated its commitment by appointing a person of unimpeachable integrity to head the ICAC and also by prosecuting some big fish. Singapore has also devised similar institutions and made a successful transition from high corruption to low corruption economy.
Another disquieting factor is that corruption has become legitimised in Indian society, and particularly among the Indian middle class, which provides the overwhelming majority of the public servants. It no longer provokes a sense of outrage or moral indignation. A corrupt public servant, particularly if he is rich and powerful, is no longer held in disrespect or ostracized. This deadening of social conscience and lack of disapproval has provided further stimulant for corruption and aggrandizement by public servants.

 

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