Why corruption cannot be dealt with overnight

Published in Sunday Tribune | August 14th

Looking beyond the Jan Lokpal Bill In its current avatar, the draft Jan Lokpal Bill is only a part of the answer. In order to be effective, it needs to incorporate preventive and educational aspects as well

UNFORTUNATELY the curse of ‘corruption’ pervades all societies and no country or Government can claim to be entirely free from the malady. The recent change in the attitude of our society to the malaise of corruption is heartening. The public outcry and impatience have, however, created an urgency to usher in legislative and administrative measures but also, ironically, clouded the sight of a comprehensive solution. It is the latter that we must watch out for, lest the quest for reining in corruption gets derailed.

The shrillness surrounding the subject seems to be hijacking the real issue by pinning hopes on only one legislative measure. It appears that the Lokpal Bill is being made out to be the panacea for all the ills of our corruption ridden society. This would clearly be an intellectual myopia.

I personally studied the Jan Lokpal Bill to understand it better. I believe it is a good start but still needs to be looked into further. We need to remember planning & drafting this Bill would just be the beginning.

The core lesson from countries that have made progress is that success has been achieved when an integrated three-legged programme of enforcement, prevention and education has been applied. As stated earlier, at this stage our Jan Lokpal Bill consists only of enforcement. It is thus a one legged chair. We need a three legged chair to make any progress.

Hong Kong, Indonesia, China

The case of Hong Kong appears to have more similarities to contemporary India. Hong Kong’s Commission was established in response to a crisis of public confidence. In the mid-70′s Hong Kong saw an incident that shook the very roots of its law & order when a senior police officer, Peter Fitzroy Godber, amassed a wealth of more than 4.3 mn HK$ in overseas bank accounts and, on being discovered, managed to simply leave the country using his police passport and contacts.

It wasn’t as if Hong Kong did not have an Anti-corruption branch before it, but it was incapable structurally to lead the charge against the problem.

A more recent case has been the emergence of Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission.The Commission has a powerful remit to investigate and prosecute. To date it has a 100% success rate in conviction which includes ministers, senior serving MPs, Governors of the Central Bank, members of the Election Commission, judges, police and senior prosecutors. Its only restriction is that they cannot prosecute military officers as they are governed by military courts. If we look at China, enforcement rates are very high and punishment includes death but there is only enforcement with minimal efforts at prevention or systematic efforts at public education. The result is that public perceptions of corruption, despite application of the death penalty for the guilty, remain unchanged year after year.

Prevention

Prevention contains a couple of key aspects – repairing the system or correcting certain processes. The first requires a capacity to review systems and procedures through an integrity lens that can spot possible loopholes and apply corrective improvements to reduce potential for abuse. An understanding of the regulations, institutional weaknesses and wider social context in which regulations are applied is needed. I believe it is critical for any Anti-corruption commission to be as capable of working on preventive techniques as it is on enforcement.

To build its preventive capacity, the Ombudsman or the commission should constantly be looking for patterns of corruption as they emerge. Patterns can be found from the complaints being received with an eye to see if the system is the problem (preventive measures) or whether the problem is with individuals (enforcement measures). Through my discussions with various anti-corruption agencies around the world, I present to you a case which might make this point even clearer.

In Hong Kong, the ICAC received a complaint that a contractor had used second grade cement to construct a tall building. ICAC sent its engineers for inspection and found the complaint to be true. Orders were issued for the building to be immediately demolished. ICAC did not merely stop at this single case inspection. They took upon themselves the task to find why such a thing went un-noticed by the civil inspectors who gave approval at various stages of construction of the building. What they found was that there were very few building inspectors and given the amount of construction happening in Hong Kong, were obviously over-worked and hence, the lapse.

The third key element of successful counter corruption strategies is education. Education involves understanding corruption – defining what comes under the purview of corruption and what does not. People need to know the rules and procedures, not just staff in an agency but also those people who use their services.

They need to know they do not have to engage in corruption to get what they need and need to be made aware of their rights – both legal and social to be able to resist demands of corruption.

Anonymous complaints
Apart from these fulcrums of prevention and education, there is a specific aspect which if taken care of would go a long way in improving the efficacy of Jan Lokpal Bill.

The Bill prepared by the civil society in various paragraphs at different places talks about publishing every month the list of cases with brief details on each case. I believe this would be very harmful not only to the officer being investigated and proves to be innocent later, but also dangerous for the complainant and the witnesses.

Any anti-graft commission in any country receives numerous complaints each year, out of which only a small number are found to be true and are substantiated- making details of each case public would lead to public ridicule of innocent people, given that the court of public opinion is much harsher than legal courts. The reputation of the innocent must be protected.

Also, giving details of the case could lead to the exposure of witnesses and thus be a deterrent to whistleblowers or anybody wanting to divulge any corrupt practice. On the same grounds, all such details should be out of purview of the Right to Information Act also. In addition it is important to affirm that to safeguard the common man and ensure the security of the smaller fry in any corrupt system, anonymous complaints should be accepted.

One final lesson from success stories in other countries. The containment of corruption did not happen overnight. In most places,even in small societies like Hong Kong or Singapore, it took about a generation for the transformation to take place. Corruption, after all, is a complex socio economic cultural phenomenon. At the heart of it is the disparity of power amongst the people of a country. Indeed, it mirrors the skewed distribution of power in the society – power being a combination of education, money, social and legal rights vis-a-vis the aspiration and ambition of a people.

This is not an argument for inaction, but rather a cautionary reminder that when we set down the path to fighting corruption, we should know at the outset it is for the long haul, and not to be distracted by short term partisan jockeying. It is also a struggle that all components of the nation must face together.

(The Writer is a Congress Member of Parliament, representing Kurukshetra constituency of Haryana)

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  • Naveen Jindal
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