|By N. Vittal
(Chief Vigilance Officer)
THE PRIME Minister, Mr. A. B. Vajpayee,
addressing the nation on October 16, after the elections, observed: ``One
of our immediate tasks will be to firmly put down terrorism, which has
come to cast its cruel shadow on innocent people. Our message is loud and
clear; the life of every Indian citizen under our dispensation is
precious. In our fight against terrorism, we will be guided by the
principle of zero tolerance. The same principle of zero tolerance will
apply while dealing with corruption that has bred contempt for the law.
One of the first legislations we will take up is the Lok Pal Bill so that
the rot can be checked from the top. A broad consensus already exists on
electoral reforms to weed out the muscle and money power. We propose to
introduce soon in Parliament a comprehensive electoral reform bill.''
His use of the expression ``zero
tolerance'' represents a significant and important shift in the perception
by the Union Government, especially at the level of the Prime Minister, of
the issue of corruption.
The approach to tackling corruption in
our country has so far been lackadaisical. The Supreme Court judgment in
the Vineet Narain case was a major step in ensuring that the Central
Vigilance Commission was made a statutory body and, more important, that
it had supervisory powers over the CBI in anti- corruption cases. The CVC
was also to play an important role in the Enforcement Directorate.
India's economy today is a standing
monument to the corruption and inefficiency of four departments - Customs,
Central Excise, Income Tax and the Enforcement Directorate. It is the
evasion of taxes and the failure of these departments to check illegal
activities which have crystallised into black money, whose quantum has
been estimated at between Rs. 40,000 crores and Rs. 1,00,000 crores. Whole
industries today depend on black economy.
Our elections also involve a lot of black
money and this has resulted in criminalisation of politics, highlighted by
the Vohra Committee. The hawala scam brought out the linkage among the
corrupt businessmen, politicians, bureaucracy and criminals. The 1993
Mumbai blasts which claimed the lives of 300 persons occurred because RDX
was smuggled in allegedly by bribing a customs official with Rs. 20 lakhs.
The Prime Minister, therefore, is right in applying the principle of zero
tolerance to both corruption and terrorism.
India has been ranked 66 out of 85 in the
Corruption Perception Index 1998 by the German non-governmental
organisation, Transparency International, based in Berlin. This means 65
countries were perceived to be less corrupt than India. My goal as the CVC
is to see that before I hand over charge on September 2, 2002, India's
rank improves to at least 40.
As the Prime Minister has indicated, what
we need to do is to apply the principle of zero tolerance. It means that
no case of corruption will be tolerated and that the corrupt will be
punished. In our system, the bribe-giver and the bribe-taker are both
guilty. The only exceptions are members of Parliament. According to the
Supreme Court judgment in the JMM case, the bribe-receiving MP, who has to
do some activity within Parliament, is not guilty but the bribe-giver,
even if he is a member of the House, is guilty.
The efforts made in the past to check
corruption have failed precisely because the guilty under the existing
system of judicial process do not generally get punished. The conviction
rate in Indian courts is only 6 per cent. There are three crore cases
pending in the courts! The average time taken for disposal of cases ranges
from 10 to 20 years. As for the anti-corruption cases handled by the CBI,
1173 cases are pending investigation as of August 1999. When it comes to
prosecution, the figures tell a more pathetic story. As of August 1999,
3484 cases are pending.
But any attempt at improving the judicial
system and speeding up the disposal of cases is within the jurisdiction of
the courts themselves, We have to explore other areas which are within the
jurisdiction of the Government and the CVC.
How do we implement the zero tolerance
strategy for checking corruption - which means prompt and effective
punishment? To begin with, we have to understand the mechanics of how
India became so corrupt a country. The growth of corruption after
Independence has taken place in a two-stage process. The first was
corrupting institutions and the second, institutionalisation of
As I see it, 1975, when emergency was
imposed, was the watershed during stage-I. The principle that the
bureaucracy must be committed was articulated. This meant that the
bureaucracy must be committed not to the Constitution but to the
Government of the day. From this started its systematic deterioration and
it became highly politicised. We therefore see the bureaucrats getting
aligned politically and labelled as belonging to this or that leader.
Naturally, with every change of Government, massive transfers at various
levels take place to ensure a proper alignment of the political
frequencies of the bureaucrats and their political masters.
Corruption of the institutions has
finally led to institutionalisation of corruption. As the Prime Minister
pointed out, the failure to deal with corruption has bred contempt for the
law. When there is contempt for the law and politics is criminalised,
corruption will flourish. The honest public servant who tries to implement
the law becomes a misfit in such a situation.
As of today, entire sections of our
public life have become corrupt. There are five key players on our
corruption scene: the corrupt politician (neta), the corrupt bureaucrat (babu),
the corrupt business (lala), the corrupt NGO (jhola) and the criminal
(dada). There are five reasons why our system encourages corruption. These
are (i) scarcity of goods and services, (ii) lack of transparency, (iii)
red tape and delay caused by obsolete rules and procedures which are
time-consuming and which encourage speed money, (iv) cushions of legal
safety provided by various pronouncements of courts and CATs on the
principle that everybody is innocent until proved guilty. The net result
is that the corrupt are able to engage the best lawyers and quibble their
way through the system. Shakespeare points out in his Measure for Measure
that laws are like scarecrows. They are initially installed to scare the
birds. Once the birds realise that the scarecrow is a harmless doll, they
build their nests on it. (v) Finally, biradri or tribalism in which the
corrupt public servants protect one another. We talk about people being
thick as thieves not thick as honest men!
These five reasons are a mutually
reinforcing vicious circle of corruption. This can be tackled only by
setting in motion a virtuous circle which will help achieve zero tolerance
to corruption. Three elements will make the virtuous circle. The first is
simplification of rules and procedures so that the scope for corruption is
reduced to the minimum. One can deal with corruption like one deals with
malaria. One can either give medicine to those who have been affected or
prevent the breeding of mosquitoes. Simplification of the rules and
removal of the red tape are like removing the stagnant pools which
encourage the mosquitoes of corruption.
The second element should be transparency
and empowerment of the public. Here, the need for a Freedom of Information
Act (FOIA) is obvious. There is an urgent need for applying information
technology in every citizen-public office interface so that the common
citizen can have access to the information that he needs.
The third element is effective
punishment. This is where we have to go beyond depending only on the
judicial system and see what other weapons can be thought of. Corruption
today is a low-risk, high profit business. The principle of zero tolerance
resulting in effective and prompt punishment should increase the risk.
This should be the single most important element in the virtuous circle.