Get cracking on corruption!

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The issue of ending endemic corruption, including combating the menace of black money, needs to be addressed with both sincerity and speed. The government claims to have taken a series of measures to meeting the challenges posed by corruption in public life. However, the impression remains that it is ineffective in tackling the scourge of corruption, which is affecting all walks of our life and making the common citizen, who has no ‘Mai Baap’ (money or influence), its victim.

The United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi in December 2010 outlined a concrete 5-point agenda before the 83rd Congress plenary session that included fast-tracking of all corruption cases to restore people’s faith in the political system; full transparency in public procurement and contracts through a clear legislation and procedures; relinquishing discretionary quota by all Congress ministers at the Centre and in the states; and formulating an open and competitive system of exploiting natural resources.

A review of the status of implementation of these action-points reveals that much more needs to be done. The new system of fast-track courts to handle corruption cases is yet to take shape and court proceedings continue as before. Even the demand for fixing a time-frame for deciding pending criminal cases against elected representatives has not materialised, with a number of public interest litigations being filed on the subject. There is a popular demand for electoral reforms, specifically to prohibiting criminals from contesting elections. The new public procurement law is facing stiff opposition from vested interests in the government. The issue of complete withdrawal of discretionary powers has happened sporadically at certain levels of government functioning but this is not being practised uniformly throughout the government set-up.

An open and competitive system of exploiting natural resources is still at the examination stage. The Chawla Committee has submitted its recommendations but this remains a complicated subject, requiring time and expertise to give shape to it completely. Even the simplest of the 5-point programme that requires an austere, simple lifestyle and refraining from indulging in a vulgar display of wealth has not been converted into an action programme. It is because of this slow pace of implementation that the Centre has received flak from the public.

Along with this, the Union government has addressed socio-political challenges of combating corruption as a law and order issue. Having been responsible for maintaining law and order during my career, I can say with some conviction that the police forces can handle the challenges of law and order effectively, if there is clarity of the mission to be accomplished. Socio-political challenges should have been addressed through good governance made possible by effective and timely processes of government decision-making. Unfortunately, law and order issues and socio-economic challenges intermingled in the government’s response to public agitations by Baba Ramdev and Anna Hazare creating confusion.

The Lokpal Bill has been finally introduced in Parliament and is currently awaiting the nod of the Rajya Sabha. Perhaps, it may not see the light of the day in its present form. One fails to understand the political attempts to complicate matters that can be kept simple. The institutions of the Lokpal and Lokayukta need not be set-up under an overarching law. Even if it is legally and constitutionally tenable, one needs to respect the federal character of the Indian polity, particularly when many states already have a state-level Lokayukta and only require upgrading their powers.

There is no need for the apex anti-corruption body of the Lokpal to have an organic link with the Citizens’ Right to Grievance Bill, whose objective is to reform the state of public service delivery by giving every citizen the right to time-bound public services. Why have an overarching Citizens’ Right to Grievance Bill, when many states have already enacted their own public services guarantee acts? At best, the government could have enacted a model Lokayukta and right to public services law for the states to adopt and emulate. Perhaps, the imperative to meet the challenges from Team Anna led to the series of measures which have not been examined thoroughly either in terms of its acceptability by states, or its administrative and financial feasibility and its effective implementation.

Now certain individuals from Team Anna have made unwelcome remarks on the proceedings and MPs. The issue is that Parliament need not take cognisance of every utterance made by a few organised groups. To protect the sanctity of Parliament, members could have passed a law similar to those uploading key national symbols like the national flag, protecting them from the onslaught of public outrage. By debating Team Anna’s utterances, Parliament has given undue recognition to a select group of social activists, enabling them to garner more political mileage than is due. Individuals and groups trying to weaken parliamentary institutions are no doubt hurting the cause of democracy. The institutions responsible for running the wheels of democracy have to respond with greater care. Let them not give undue recognition to those who are not mindful of propriety.

The real answer to Team Anna is through concrete actions taken on key demands made at different points of time, be it on electoral reforms or on curbing the role of black money in the economy. The government need not reinvent the wheel on these issues; instead it should refer to the useful suggestions and legislations made by various government-appointed committees like the Law Commission and Administrative Reforms Commission that lie in the public domain.

Parliament members would do well to debate these recommendations than to discuss the conduct of a few activists. With so many important Bills pending before Parliament including The Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill, The Electronic Services Delivery Bill, The National Food Security Bill, Citizens’ Right to Grievance Redress Bill, The Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill, etc, the time to act for the central government is now. With the clock ticking before the next public outburst on corruption erupts, Parliament cannot afford to delay the passage of the Lokpal Bill for want of time. As the old adage goes, action, not words, is the most effective tool to silence critics.

(This article was published in the New Indian Express on 9th June, 2012)

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