Dialogue January-March, 2011, Volume 12 No. 3
Corruption in Governance
A civil society is one that is rooted in the rule of law, and therefore, quite inconsistent with any form of corruption, since corruption not only depends and thrives on law-breaking but activity promotes law-breaking all the way. After all, it is the person who cannot secure what he wants by legal means who has to resort to corrupt means. He uses corruption for his survival and to entrench himself, and does everything possible to legitimize corruption because there will be many more tomorrows. The very fact that more and more people have begun to accept corruption as an unavoidable or ineradicable evil is a measures that a corrupt polity has had in legitimizing corruption and countering all resistance to it.
The two most powerful ingredients of corruption are shortages and government control of everything – including the shortages. All the most corrupt countries in the world – Haiti, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Somalia and several other African countries, Pakistan and India – have this typical mix of these two elements. In India, we are familiar with the strategy of traders and the government colluding even to create artificial shortages (especially before elections) so that a far greater surplus is created for donations to political parties in addition to hefty profits. Only recently, the Kamrup Chamber of Commerce announced an across-the-board ten-per cent increase in prices of all commodities without the railways or the truck operators having announced any hike in freight charges due to the increased cost of fuel. This proposed price increase has been due to some of the most flimsy excuses held out. And yet neither the minister in charge of supplies nor his department has had a word to say about how irrational the proposed price hike is. Obviously when the railways and truck operators do announce a hike in freight rates eventually due to the increased cost of fuel, there will be yet another price rise at the cost of the consumers. Such arbitrariness and autocratic ways of dealing with prices is possible only in a milieu where corruption in governance is rampant.
Transparency International has ranked Assam as the most corrupt State in India. This rampant corruption is there for all to see. The politicians, however, insists on proof of corruption knowing fully well that no one within the polity leaves any fingerprints around and everyone covers tracks with great skill and finesse. And that is why it is important for the people of India to demand that laws relating to corruption must change so that positive irrefutable inference becomes adequate for bringing charges of corruption against public servants. In Assam such positive inference of corruption is plentiful. A few example should suffice.
1. Huge investments have been made on real estate (especially multi-storeyed apartment building) since 1995 or thereabouts without any visible industrial activity in the State to generate that kind of capital. Between 1999 and 2004, there were over 750 such buildings constructed in Guwahati alone with an outlay of anything between Rs. 3,000 and 3,500 crore. This happened during a period of serious industrial stagnation. Where did all this money come from?
2. There have been innumerable scams and swindles in government departments and autonomous district councils. RH Khan, an employee of the Assam Government posted at Haflong is known to have helped a lot of people to make big money from North Cachar Hills District Autonomous Council. Obviously, in the process, he amassed a fortune for himself. Rs. 13.45 crore of it was found by the CBI in the garage of his brother-in-law. Khan had several crores of rupees of public money in his personal account which he later transferred to a special account of the Social Welfare department (that he alone could operate) when investigating authorities got on his trail. A lot of the district council money was given to terrorist outfits like the Black Widow specifically to buy sophisticated weapons by Chief Executive Member of the district council Mohit Hojai. Two activists of the Black Widow were caught red-handed with Rs. 1 crore in their possession on the outskirts of Guwahati on April 1, 2009. Their confessional statements led to the arrests of Mohit Hojai and Khan, but their arrests were delayed by about a month to let the parliamentary elections in Assam be over.
3. The Centre has asked the State Government departments 26,000 questions over a period of four or five years relating to the misuse and misappropriation of about Rs. 8,000 crore. These questions have remained unanswered. The very fact that there has been a need to ask 26,000 questions and that these questions have remained unanswered for years is proof enough of the extent of corruption in the State.
4. Sizeable sums of the Centre’s development funds have always been returned without utilization because no one is interested in utilizing the funds and there is often no time to siphon out these amounts. This is a typical example of corruption leading to the sabotage of development projects.
5. The wealth that is visible in the form of conspicuous spending (e.g., at shopping malls, children of middle-class families attending very expensive schools, college and universities both within and outside the State, ostentatious weddings, people with modest salaries being able to buy apartments within four five years of their employment at costs exceeding Rs. 10 lakh) is an indicator of money siphoned from the Centre’s grants for development projects. Such large-sale siphoning of public funds would be impossible without widespread corruption in government departments. The personal assets of some of the student leaders who have no visible jobs are also mind-boggling.
6. There has been a rapid increase in other forms of corruption like nepotism, rejection of all work ethics, absenteeism and sabotage of development projects where the use of money may not be directly visible. Take, for instance, the way in which all the very bright candidates of colleges and universities do not qualify at the Assam Public Service Commission examinations but the dregs with very low marks at the academic examinations do. This can only be explained by the fact that jobs are being sold and bought. Such inferences should lead to inquiry commissions being instituted and the guilty being punished. But for this to happen, there must be the will in the corridors of power for a change from the status quo and the ability to find someone honest enough to carry out a thorough investigation with fear or favour to none. However, a former chairman of the Assam Public Service Commission was proved to have taken large sums of money for selecting candidates, and much of the money was found in his house when an income-tax raid was conducted. Later he got elected as an Independent MLA who extended support to the ruling Congress. As a consequences, the cases of corruption against him have not been pursued.
It is often argued that corruption cannot be tackled all at once and has to be eliminated in stages. This amounts to saying that we must all agree to dealing with corruption in installments and be content with a decrease of corruption by 10 or 20 per cent every five years or so. An all-out crusade against corruption is ruled out on the plea that such a comprehensive push against corruption would not be possible due to the political imperatives of an elected government. However, there can be no piecemeal handling of corruption for the simple season that corruption is like cancer. Any attempt to leave a part of the cancer for some time will only result in the cancer spreading all over again. Any talk of political imperatives or the need for political compromises implies that politics cannot go on without corruption. It is like the talk of political solutions in India that mean crooked or unclean or unethical solutions.
Corruption is unlikely to be tackled head-on in India because of the disinclination to punish that is so manifest within the polity. The reason is not far to seek. Since politicians in our country are most often embroiled in scams and swindles, punishing the corrupt would mean punishing politicians most of the time. And because the corrupt who are often also enemies of the country go scot-free every time, this unwillingness to mete out deterrent punishment is actually providing strong encouragement to the corrupt. The corrupt practices relating to the Commonwealth Games are excellent pointers to what can be achieved when the administration is fettered by a massive fait accompli that is linked to ‘national prestige’. Nothing can be done at the eleventh hour in such matters, and the skilled practitioners of corruption obviously had this strategy in mind when they planned this monumental loot. After all, former Prime Minster Atal Bihari Vajpayee was told that the Games would cost the nation about Rs. 300 crore. Now the CWG is going to cost us about 200 times that estimate. It is unfortunate that Prime Minster Vajpayee did not get his own estimate done before agreeing to the staging of an event that is a huge waste of public money for just a bit of tinsel.
In 2001, when the Tarun Gogoi government came to power in Assam, the Chief Minster was very proud of the fact that the he had made the enactment of the Right to Information Bill a top priority in order to ensure a transparent and accountable government. The Right to Information (RTI) Bill became an Act years ago, but we know this law is an embarrassment to a government that is up to its neck in corrupt practices. So the office where the forms for RTI complaints are available is located in one of the most inaccessible buildings where the office of the Assam State Human Rights Commission is also located. For corrupt State government departments that had denied legitimate payments to contractors for years and have had to pay up astronomical amounts of arrears because of the RTI Act, the RTI Act is an evil law. In one or two other States people have had to lose their lives for having made complaints under the RTI Act. There have been no deaths here in Assam but we have had a few cases of assault.
The worst part of the present situation in Assam as well as some of the other States of the Northeast is that in the total absence of any industrial development, terrorism has been turned into an industry and the siphoning out of development funds into private coffers a ‘business’. This has become possible through corrupt practices combined with the use of the gun. There is now a vested interest that does not want any peace talks with terrorist groups to succeed because that would be like killing off the goose that lays golden eggs. The transplanting of honest means of earning money by means of making easy money without work has become the prime motivation of almost everyone in government.
Corruption in governance has given rise to much of the social malaise that is beginning to erupt in Assam. One is large-scale alcoholism promoted by bars that are permitted to be open till about 3 a.m. due to the corrupt practice of both the police and the excise officials. Another is the sale of jobs in most government departments. There are instances of even a peon’s job being sold for anything between Rs. 30,000 and Rs. 60,000. Misappropriation of Central government grants on a large scale has promoted the no-work and easy money culture. Equally disastrous for the youth of the region is the insistence on the ’10 per cent loan and 90 per cent grant equation of Central assistance that has ruined successive generations by eliminating the need for competition completely. One of the steps that the Union government has to initiate to tackle corruption within the government here is to stop all development grants for a couple of years or so until all the 26,000 queries are answered and the related financial accounts and utilization reports are filed to the satisfaction of the government. No one except those who siphon out public money will suffer since none of this money has been used for the development projects anyway. The only deserving sufferers will be those who have been looting government funds for years. In fact, this is a demand that must come for the people and be highlighted by the media.
Eradicating corruption from the most corrupt State in India has become a Herculean task because the government itself is promoting corruption. It is though almost everyone in government wants corrupt practices to remain and get more refined so that crusades against corruption become virtually impossible due to the unanimity of support to corrupt practices within the government. There are two initiatives that the people must consolidate. One is to compel all election candidates to begin their election speeches only after they have satisfactorily answered all questions directed at them during an hour before election speeches are permitted to commence. It is quite unlikely that politicians would use violence just before the elections. The people should leave the venue of election speeches en masse the moment they feel that the candidate is dishing out the usual lies. The other initiative is to use the RTI Act far more extensively and to demand that all violence associated with RTI Act complaints should be punished swiftly and in a deterrent manner. This initiative too should be intensified just before general elections when the political party in power is far more sensitive to public opinion. Once these two initiatives have been launched, the media should be told that unless they take up the cause of the people with enthusiasm and stop churning out government press releases, they will be treated as the enemy of the people. This is not to suggest that there should be kangaroo courts or vigilante groups, but the moment newspapers realize that they could lose their readers due to concerted people’s action, the message will get across. What the people need to put across effectively is that all boycotts can get worse with each anti-people activity. It is only when people have made a beginning on these lines that they will be equipped to embark on an all-out crusade against corruption.