The C Word

Prime minister Manmohan Singh addressed the nation from the Red Fort on our Independence Day. In a significant speech, he did not mince words about corruption.

These were his exact words: “There is no space in our government or in our society for corruption and arbitrary action. We are not prepared to tolerate this at any cost.”

The first prime minister of free India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had a more dramatic prescription. He said “hanging a few” of the corrupt “by the nearest lamppost” was the way to go!

Rooting out corruption is critical to our strategy of inclusive growth. Economists and public policy pundits have grossly underplayed the role of corruption in holding back the progress of our country . Corruption exacerbates, in an unfair manner, the wide disparities in income and wealth. Strangely, there are some in India who sincerely believe that corruption, in small doses, lubricates the wheels of development and is conducive to economic growth. There are others, like me, who believe that it is bad for the country, worse for business and terrible for our people. Corruption creates disincentives for the honest and misleads even the hallowed “invisible hand” of the market.

Corruption is not simply a lapse in governance. In free India, we have created an interdependent ecosystem that feeds of each other in a vicious chain of corrupt politicians, crooked businessmen and dishonest bureaucrats.

To add to the orchestra, we have pliable professionals who form a support structure to this ecosystem. Unless the creators and preservers of this ecosystem are socially ostracized, economically crippled and legally decimated, there is little hope that we will reduce corruption and its corroding impact in our society.

Without losing time, we should initiate a comprehensive legislation called the Indian Bribery and Corrupt Practices Act 2011, which punishes with imprisonment the trinity of corruption: the giver, the taker and the keeper of bribes. The first step, however, is to call a spade a spade. We should begin by using the old-fashioned term “corruption” more often and drop from our lexicon obfuscating euphemisms like “governance challenges” (corrupt authorities), “trickle-down problems” (stealing assets meant for the poor) and “underground economy” ( rampant tax evasion). One of the established ways by which the corrupt can be exposed is by protecting the “whistle-blower”. The term whistle-blower derives from the practice of English “Bobbies” (policemen), who would blow their whistles when they saw the commission of a crime. The whistle would alert both law enforcement officers and the general public of danger.

The whistle-blower in modern society plays a critical role in detecting and rooting out corruption. If we do not have safeguards or protections, very few will dare to blow the whistle.

On August 9, a proposed legislation to protect whistle-blowers and provide for severe punishment to those exposing the identity of people disclosing information was approved by the Union cabinet. The Public Interest Disclosure and Protection to Persons Making the Disclosure Bill, 2010, provides the Central Vigilance Commission the powers of a civil court to hand down harsh penalty to people revealing the identity of whistle-blowers. The bill, which has provisions to prevent victimization or disciplinary action against whistle-blowers, will cover, central, state and public sector employees. The bill is expected to encourage disclosure of information in the public interest and people who expose corruption in government. The bill has clauses that provide fine and penalties to people who penalize or harass those exposing corruption.

We know what happened to S N Dubey, an alumnus of IIT, who exposed corruption in the national highway-building program. He was murdered. Two years later, Shanmughan Manjunath, a manager at a state-owned oil company, laid bare a scheme to sell impure gasoline. His body was found riddled with bullets in the back seat of his car. These are dramatic cases leading to the tragic deaths of the whistle-blowers. But there are numerous whistle-blowers who are being harassed, intimidated and hounded every day and who die by a thousand cuts.

Therefore, one of the issues central to fighting corruption in our country is the protection of the whistle=blower. In a recent case, a dishonest civil servant had evaluated bids in such a manner that as many as three of the well-known bidders were knocked out. These bidders were awarded ridiculous technical scores — an old trick. The technical scores awarded to these bidders were so low that even if they offered to execute the contract for free, they would still lose. The question was – why had he shortlisted these three bidders at all? And how is it that the very same companies were successfully executing contracts in the same government?

An employee of one of the bidders, who spent sleepless nights, sent an anonymous email to the superiors of this civil servant. The civil servant used his contacts in the bureaucracy to obtain a copy of this email. He then used his connections in the law-enforcement agencies to flout all privacy laws and detect the IP address of the email sender. Thereafter, he began to harass, intimidate and hound the individual and the company from whose IP address the email had been purportedly sent.

If the proposal cleared by the Union cabinet becomes law, there is a promise that the corrupt bureaucrat and his accomplices in the law enforcement agencies and the civil servants who assisted in tracking down the identity of the whistle-blower would all be behind bars. Not a bar behind which tipplers gather!

Let us raise a toast to that.



hurts progress

By Roopen Roy Aug 17 2010