Ungreasing Palms in India

An anticorruption crusader discovers the Internet cuts bureaucracy and bribes

By Monika Halan

To be a common man in India is expensive. Need a phone, or gas for your home or electricity for your factory? Pay up. The palms of corrupt government officials are outstretched. An estimated 10 percent to 25 percent of India's $260 billion economy flows through underground channels, according to the Central Vigilance Commission, a government agency charged with rooting out corrupt officials from among the 12.5 million government employees. Corruption is a public secret: Everyone knows, but no one has wanted to say anything about it. Until now.

Nagraj Vittal took over the CVC in September 1998. The commission had been sending annual reports to Parliament for 35 years, but they languished there unread. Various officials made noise about cleaning up the government, but nothing ever seemed to happen. Among Vittal's first moves was to require each government department to hang in its office a notice that encouraged citizens and officials to notify the CVC if someone asks for a bribe. But though the offices posted the notices, life went on as before. Then, in January 1999, Vittal did the unthinkable. He put up two Web pages listing allegedly corrupt members of the Indian Administrative Service and the Indian Police Service, the country's premier government agencies. The 86 civil servants and 22 police officers had been the subject of criminal investigations since 1990. The list made national news. And while the public face of the bureaucracy remained serene, the uproar in the clubhouses, luxury hotels and air-conditioned offices of the top bureaucrats was deafening. A senior retired IAS officer, who wishes to remain anonymous, says of Vittal: "He's gone mad. He just wants publicity." Only the Punjab State Police Officers' Association openly objected to posting the list, saying it was defamatory because it contained names of persons whose guilt was yet to be proven.

Vittal then made a strategic retreat: He modified the list to include only those who had been found guilty of misconduct, and he removed those that are still under investigation. But Vittal soon expanded the list of what is popularly called the Rogues Gallery to include 244 names in 23 departments, such as the Indian Forest Service and public-sector banks. "This technology is the best tool to provide transparency," says Vittal. "It is cost-effective, the message lasts longer and reaches out to a larger number of people." Indian courts are trying to tackle the problem. More than 3,000 anticorruption cases initiated by the Central Bureau of Investigation are pending in courts. But corruption is still a low-risk, high-profit endeavor, as the average case takes 10 to 20 years to decide, and the conviction rate in the Indian courts is only 6 percent.

Vittal believes the Internet offers two important tools in the fight against corruption: access to information and efficiency in the bureaucratic process. Automating certain bureaucratic functions removes from the system much of the delay, which causes corruption. Vittal's detractors downplay the impact of his list. Only about 5 million of India's 1 billion people have access to the Internet, they say. Furthermore, only the middle class uses the Internet, and the middle class is corrupt. What difference does it make if a corrupt man looks at another corrupt man's name on a Web site? Small signs indicate that citizens want to shrug off five decades of decay. Every day, about 200 people complain to the CVC via the Net and by mail. Perhaps more significant, Defense Minister George Fernandes in February told Vittal to probe all defense deals - the breeding ground of the richest kickbacks - since 1985. A significant part of the shift comes from a new understanding that corruption is expensive.

Vittal writes on his Web site: "The World Bank is also realizing that a country which is perceived to be corrupt gets at least 20 percent less foreign direct investment. If a country is perceived to be more corrupt, it gets 35 percent less FDI." Vittal says he got these figures from the United Nations Development Programme. Supporters agree with Vittal's claim that technology battles corruption by making public the names of offenders, and by streamlining bureaucracy and thereby reducing opportunities for bribes. Title transfer, for example, is "usually a cesspool of corruption everywhere," says Srivatsa Krishna, the executive director of technology services in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Automation reduces a several-month process to "an hour or so, at best," he says - and the opportunity for bribes is all but eliminated. "We aspire to use technology to make every single interface of g2c and g2b a convenient, transparent, affordable exercise, as seen from a citizen's perspective." In Delhi, forms that previously required multiple visits to the local office are now available on the Web, as well as names, addresses and phone numbers of the relevant officers. Getting such information for free is a freeing experience for citizens used to cringing before a clerk. Bureaucrats as well as politicians are jumping on the anticorruption bandwagon.

Bimal Jalan, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India, says the Banking Secrecy Act - which for years protected the identities of companies - must be changed and the names made public of those companies that consistently default on loans. Vittal, a short, wiry 62-year-old, is a lifelong member of the class that he polices. Formerly at the Ministry of Telecommunications, he had a reputation for anticorruption vigilance before his appointment to the CVC. While many government officials surround themselves with hangers-on and favor-seekers, he is surprisingly entourage-free. He even picks up his own phone at home - unthinkable for a high-ranking government official. Ironically, while Vittal is a firm believer in the power of the Internet, he is computer illiterate; a staff member checks his e-mail for him. "The ideal government should be small, moral, accountable, responsible, transparent," says Vittal.

He wants to apply information technology in every public office interface so the common citizen can have access to information. His goal is to improve India's rank on the Transparency International corruption index from 66 to "at least 40, if not 30" before Sept. 2, 2002, when he completes his term at CVC. "I'm just doing my duty," adds Vittal. "I have no other agenda. I have had a full life and this post was unexpected. Now, I'm just doing my job. I'm focusing on that."