Zero tolerance to corruption

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 corruption.

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.