Dialogue October-December, 2011, Volume 13 No. 2


Corruption in Public Service

P.C. Hota*



From Kautilya in the 4th century B.C. to Gunnar Myrdal in the 20th  century, political thinkers have written about corrupt practice among public servants. Kautilya had said in the Arthasastra - his magnum opus- that: “Just as it is impossible not to taste honey or poison that one may find at the tip of one’s tongue, so it is impossible for one dealing with government funds not to take at least a bit of the King’s wealth. Just as it is impossible to know when a fish moving in water is drinking it, so it is impossible to find out when government servants in charge of undertakings misappropriate money.”

       The lesson of history is: Corruption among public servants cannot be completely eliminated though it can be curbed and controlled. Perhaps except the tiny Republic of Singapore no modern country has been able to contain corrupt practice in public life. The civil servants in Singapore are the highest paid officials in the world and the size of the country and its population of only about 0.4 million explain why Singapore is largely free of graft.

    History records that, there were some great statesmen in ancient Greece and Rome as Lycurgus, who drafted the Constitution of Sparta; Pericles of Athens, who strengthened democracy; Cato, the powerful Roman Senator, who led an austere life and the Roman Consul Fabricus, who attained eminence because of his proverbial incorruptibility.            (It was said in contemporary Rome about Fabricus that the sun could be deflected from its course in the solar system; but Fabricus could not be deflected from the path of rectitude by offer of a bribe).

      There were, however, others in ancient times who earned notoriety for corruption. Herodotus, the contemporary Greek historian, has recorded that in spite of great military discipline and austere life-style of the Spartans, it was very difficult for an average Spartan to resist a bribe. A few centuries later, Edward Gibbon, who wrote his monumental work, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, bemoaned the fall of the mighty Roman Empire due to lust for power and corruption.

      Corruption was also rife in the Middle Ages. It was so endemic in medieval Italy that Savonarola (1452-98) – who was the epitome of honesty in public life – was burnt alive only because the corrupt political factions in medieval Florence could not tolerate his austere lifestyle and unimpeachable integrity. “History also records that though the Popes have been extremely pious, some of them were perhaps not above board in regard to probity in public life.

       In British India – during the rule of the East India Company – most of the Company’s Servants were corrupt. There is historical evidence that George Vansittart, a company’s officer, took moveable property including vast quantity of gold in a ship from India to England in the year 1776. The situation in British India during the Company’s rule became so grim in terms of graft and corruption that Robert Clive had to be recalled to clean up “the Augean Stable”. It is also on record that Pitt’s India Act of 1784 made acceptance of gift by the company’s servant a cognizable offence punishable with imprisonment.

       Even in the United Kingdom – the citadel of parliamentary democracy – graft and corruption were wide spread. During the time of Robert Walpole peerage could be bought and sold. Even the recommendations of the Directors of the East India Company for nomination of a youngman for a career in the covenanted civil service could be available for monetary consideration. In other words, the Haileybury men had bad odour of corrupt practice which the successful candidates in the competitive examinations introduced in the wake of the Northcote – Trevelyan Report of 1854 – called derisively as competitionwallahs by George Trevelyan – did not have. The ICS officers might not have been

bound by the Franciscan oath of “poverty, anonymity and obedience”; but they laid down norms of conduct and behaviour of Civil Servants. They ensured that the ICS started a wholesome tradition of honest and dedicated public service.

     In the initial years after Independence, the political executive in India comprised persons, who were men of unimpeachable integrity as Dr. Rajendra Prasad, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Va1labhbhai Patel, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Lal Bahadur Sastri, Gulzari Lal Nanda, C. Rajgopalachari, K. Kamraj and others, who set very high standards in public life. Civil Servants who worked with such distinguished leaders emulated them. Except for stray cases as that of S.A. Venkataraman of the ICS, who was tried for corrupt practice in 1953 and imprisoned, a large majority of civil servants of India were men of great integrity.

      But unfortunately money and muscle power gradually dominated politics in post-independent India. A few politicians in power made money through corrupt means. Once the ship of the state started leaking from the top, it became progressively difficult to have a honest civil service. In some cases, a politician - civil servant nexus developed posing a threat to democratic governance. The enormous growth of “black money” in what is called “the parallel economy” also led to distribution.of “cash for votes” in the elections of Members of Legislatures and the local self-governing units as the Panchayats and the Zilla Parishads.

     An important reason for the rise of corrupt practice in recent years has been of course huge expenditure on different schemes in the successive Five Years Plans. In the First Five Year Plan (1951-56) the total outlay for a period of five years was a little more than Rs. 2000 crores. In recent years, the amount of expenditure on Plan Schemes has increased astronomically. In the current Financial Year of 2011-12, the annual plan expenditure is estimated at about Rs. 4,41,548 crores - a mind-boggling amount of money!! In the last seven years, expenditure on plan schemes has undergone a three-fold increase as in the Financial year 2004-05, it was only Rs. 1,45,000 crores.

    Any expert in public administration will testify that the existing practices, procedure and also administrative infrastructure of the Government of India or of the states are not equipped to handle such large expenditure. To illustrate, huge sums of money are spent on irrigation schemes, power projects, flood protection works, bridges and roads, water-harvesting structures and earthwork under Employment Guarantee Schemes. Some of these schemes are executed without proper

technical survey and realistic financial estimates. The labour-intensive schemes do not invariably result in building durable assets for the community. Often big projects with huge outlay of plan funds lead to inevitable procurement of costly spares and auxiliary equipments, where “kickback” is expressed in terms of percentage of the amount of money for which work order or procurement order have been issued. In the circumstances, a pragmatic approach would be to appoint on short-term contract competent retired officers of unimpeachable integrity as E. Sreedharan of Delhi’s Metro Project as high-level supervisors. Intensive supervision of execution of schemes in the Five-Year Plans by competent senior officials of unimpeachable integrity – whether serving or retired – will go a long way to ensure a corruption-free execution of schemes and projects under the Central and State governments.

       Usually, corrupt practice creeps in when officials enjoy power and authority but have lost their self-respect. The causes for loss of self-respect could be various, ranging from insufficiency of legal remuneration to make both ends meet to constant harassment at workplace by the senior administrative or political bosses. During my rather long career in the IAS, I have seen how senior political leaders in Government interfere with the day-to-day administration and how senior officers of the government become helpless spectators of the degeneration of the system. A young officer cannot retain his idealism for long if, over a period, he suffers adverse consequences in his official career because of his honesty and integrity. A few honest officers might retain their idealism for some time; but as they suffer adverse consequences in their official career because of their honesty, they are looked down upon as “theoreticians” by the peer group. The honest get demoralized by frequent transfers to unimportant posts. Finally, they loose total self respect and resort to corrupt practice.

      One of the measures of civil service reform should be to give every senior official a minimum tenure of three to five years in a post. This tenure should have a statutory back-up under a new Civil Service Act. The senior officer, who would get a fixed tenure under the new Act would be strictly accountable for performance of targets set for him in a memorandum of understanding between him and the political executive. In May 1997, though the Chief Ministers’Conference at New Delhi presided over by the Prime Minister recommended introduction of minimum tenure for key officials in state governments, nothing significant has happened as the minimum tenure formula for key officials had no statutory back-up. I know how in an important state of the country, the Chief Minister would send an unsigned typed note to the Secretary, Appointments and the Secretary,  Appointments would adopt the proposal in the unsigned note of the Chief Minister for posting of different key officials as the recommendation of the Establishment Board presided over by the Chief Secretary of the state.

     One of the main instruments to check corruption in public life is to ensure greater openness in the decision-making process. Transparency in decision-making will also eliminate delay. Delay is one of the reasons for payment of “speed money” - an euphemism for a bribe. Two recent examples of the benefit of transparency in government are hassle-free prior reservation of railway tickets and speedy registration of transfer deeds of immovable property in office of the Local Sub-Registrar. computerization has ensured that in at least these two services it is not possible for corrupt officials to demand and accept illegal gratification.

     An important check on corrupt practice among public servants at the lower level would be sustained tour in remote areas by the supervisory officers. If a young IAS officer as the collector and District Magistrate makes night halts in remote villages, he would win confidence of the local people. He would invariably spread the message that he would be tough against corrupt officials. If the Collector and District Magistrate and other supervisory officers take time off to measure earthwork or check muster-roll of beneficiaries in an Employment Guarantee Scheme or check the disbursement of rice and wheat to B.P.L. families or if they supervise the disbursement of widow and old age pension, tyranny of corrupt officials in the countryside would be a thing of the past. In my opinion, persons below the poverty line do not bother so much about a powerful “Lokpal” with jurisdiction over the highest executive. They are much more concerned about harassment by petty officials as no government office in rural area is perceived to be totally corruption-free. And the Lokpal admittedly can do nothing to tame the corrupt minor officials in a large country as ours.

      Finally, sanction for prosecution under the Prevention of corruption Act 1988 should not be with the Government of the day as the political executive may be subject to political and other pressures. Sanction for prosecution under the Prevention of corruption Act may be accorded by the Central Vigilance Commission for officers of the Government of India, the Central Public Sector Undertakings and the State Vigilance Commissions for State Government officials and officers of state public sector undertakings. To ensure that honest officers are protected against harassment by the CBI and the Vigilance Agencies, a high level panel of retired Supreme Court or High Court Judges and retired Administrators may advise the Vigilance Commissions - both in the Government of India and the states – regarding the justification for accord of sanction for prosecution. The Vigilance Commission should also accord sanction for preliminary enquiry against an officer by the CBI or Vigilance Agencies. In matters of preliminary inquiry the advice of the panel of retired judges and retired civil servants be sought by the Vigilance Commissions before authorizing such inquiry. I have personal knowledge how a preliminary inquiry against an honest officer can have far-reaching demoralizing effect on the vast number of honest officers, who serve at different levels in the official hierarchy.

    I am also aware of a few cases where honest and upright officers have suffered because of minor infraction of procedure in decision-making where at best a minor penalty – rather than a criminal case –  could have met the ends of justice. If honest officers are not protected – and honest officers invariably enjoy a reputation for a straightforward approach – a silent message will spread across the civil service for everyone to play safe and adopt a crab-like negative role. It may not be irrelevant to mention that “Red Tape” is the name of the British civil service magazine. Does it show that the civil service in U.K. has become insensitive to ridicule and contempt? Admittedly, it would, be extremely harmful if the Civil Service in India becomes thick-skinned and insensitive.

    A wit has put the dilemma of strict enforcement of anti-graft laws against public servants. He says that hitherto the public servants did nothing without a bribe. But after a crackdown on corruption and arrests of public servants on charges of bribery they simply do nothing. In enforcing anti-corruption laws, a mature administrator has to take care not to commit excesses in the name of anti-bribery campaign lest the campaign may produce negative results in decision-making by Government Servants. As K.M. Munshi, a Member of the Drafting Committee, spoke in the Constituent Assembly that public servants are very sensitive to unjust decisions and the fall-out of such decisions can produce a civil service with a highly negative attitude.

      Admittedly, there should be systematic efforts to eliminate corruption; but such efforts cannot be carried out with a degree of frenzy by organizing huge rallies and demonstrations. Any mass hysteria – social frenzy inevitably results in such hysteria – can create a lot of instability and cause substantial damage to democratic institutions. The French Revolution of 1789 – and the social frenzy generated by it – gave rise to Napoleon. Similarly, the frenzy in the Weimer Republic of Germany against the Treaty of Versailles, aggravated by the world-wide Depression of the Nineteen Thirties, gave rise to Adolf Hitler.

    In the post-war world, many advanced countries have faced the problem of corruption. In Israel, former Prime Minister, Ehud Wolmert, was indicted of charges of corrupt practice. Similar charges were proved against the former Japanese Prime Minister, Kakueri Tanaka. In Italy, the present Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi could not fully protect himself against charges of corrupt practice and has agreed not to contest the next general elections due in 2013-14. Jacques Chirac, former President of France, committed financial irregularities and the French press called him “Alibaba” and members of his Cabinet as “forty thieves”. Perhaps in India, there is no reason to despair as in recent months, some tough decisions have been taken against powerful politicians and others on charges of alleged corrupt practice. Most of them have been denied bail and are languishing in jail.

      It is also relevant to note that even in the advanced countries as the United States of America and the United Kingdom, corruption has not been completely eliminated. In U.K. even after appointment of a Parliamentary Commissioner following the Report of Lord Nolan in the year 1995 on “standards in public life”, Members of Parliament have been guilty of “cash for questions”. Some Members of the British Parliament have been arrested – and imprisoned – for submission of false “residence” bills during the sessions of the Parliament. In USA, the Lockheed Scandal was followed by "The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977" to prosecute American Companies for offering bribes to officials and others in foreign countries. But the Act of 1977 has not rid the American Companies of corrupt practices. The message is: if there is big money, “big corruption” is waiting in the wings to gently knock at the door for a smooth, silent and surreptitious entry.

      Let me conclude by pointing out to law’s inordinate delay and how a protracted trial in a case under the Prevention of Corruption Act can ruin an official’s career. In Babu Lal Bajpai versus State of U.P. (AIR 1994 SC 1538), the Supreme Court acquitted an official after about twenty-four years of a chargesheet against him in a lower court. I do not think any probe was ordered as to why the trial in lower court took long years and how at the first instance, the Anti-Corruption Agencies thought it to be a fit case for submitting a chargesheet against the accused person when no independent witness was in the raiding party and the amount of Rs.75, which was allegedly” offered as bribe, was not recovered from the accused. If it was a fit case for submitting a chargesheet, why did the Trial Court exonerate him and why the High Court, on appeal by the state, convicted him. Finally, why did the Supreme Court set aside the order of the High Court and acquit the accused? These are some of the rather disturbing questions which need honest answers before we get tough with the allegedly corrupt in our mission for graft-free governance.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)                                                Astha Bharati