Thursday, August 18, 2011

Lokpal Bill will soon be done. Now let’s take the other necessary steps….

Thank god, there is progress on the Lokpal Bill. Thank god, there is some visible flexibility shown by both the government and the civil society. All of us who have been supporting the anti-corruption movement, but disagreeing with specific points in the Jan Lokpal Bill feel vindicated with the turn of events yesterday. My fingers are crossed that this was not just an aberration, but the real deal….

As I have been repeatedly saying (starting with my post dated March 5th this year), there are many many reasons why corruption exists in India. I will yet again enumerate my suggestions to remove corruption. I will draw extensively from this March 5th post of mine for that. But before I do that, let me compliment the government for realizing its mistake in clamping down on Anna and making many stupid moves since August 16th, when Manish Tiwari accused Anna of corruption. After many blunders, the government has now become reasonable. The permission for the fast is for 15 days and I am sure, it can be extended if required. The crowd restrictions are reasonable. Since the venue has changed, the other irritant of how many cars and bikes can be brought has also been removed. While the government did all this, Anna’s team also made some reasonable compromises. Their demand for loudspeakers after 10 pm was illegal and they withdrew it. The fast-unto-death was pure blackmail, and Team Anna has now clarified that that is not the plan. The doctors will check on Anna three times a day…..there! Both parties have shunned their obduracy and we are already seeing trust building up!

Let’s also understand what most people in this country are demanding. People are fed up with corruption. Corruption at the last mile. In our dealings with the cops. Or with small government officials. At the passport office. Corruption that hits us every single day. This is what irks people the most. This is what you won’t find when you go to the developed world. People want government departments to work efficiently; government officials to treat people with respect. The solutions to this will not come from the Lokpal Bill, but there are other solutions available. That’s why I always felt that the Lokpal Bill would not be enough. We need many more reforms. Most people get cynical and worried that the moment we say this, this is a way of scuttling the issue. That’s why, if the government is serious, it should appoint a new task force to handle all issues of corruption. It should include members of opposition parties. It should include civil society members as well, but no one should be able to use threats. It must have a time bound agenda. It should function like the Constituent Assembly did to frame our Constitution immediately after independence. It must look after all aspects of corruption. The PM himself must give people a monthly update on the task force’s meetings and discussions. Modern media tools – including TV, radio and digital – must be used to communicate progress with the people. The main thing is that the government must be two steps ahead of the people; not behind.

Before going to the multiple steps needed to fight corruption, let me quickly summarize my opinion on the Jan Lokpal v/s government’s Lokpal Bills. I will reproduce many points here from my earlier post dated 8th August:

Where government should be flexible:

(1) Exclusion of the PM while he is serving. Well, I have always maintained that the PM should be included…..but with the caveat that frivolous complaints be eliminated.
(2) The penalizing of the complainant if the complaint is found to be frivolous. A 2-year punishment is too stiff and sounds oppressive. Maybe to start with, there should be no penalties at all…..but if this is abused by people, a provision to control the menace could be brought in later as an amendment.
(3) Limiting the period of investigation to 7 years after the corruption has happened. Now I am in support of limitation as a concept…..but in India where there is so much perception of political corruption, and where PMs rule for more than 10 years all the time, there is a genuine worry that a 7 year period is self-serving. The period of limitation could remain 7 years after the PM has given up office, but it should cover the entire period of his/her tenure….not be limited to a smaller portion. For eg, if Manmohan Singh demits office in 2014, then a complaint could be brought against him until 2021 (7 years) but it could cover the entire 10 years of his rule (2004-2014). The politicians must remember that they have lost credibility – no matter which party they belong to – and this change is thus warranted.

Where Anna should be flexible:

(1) Including every single member of the government. This is misplaced enthusiasm. Let’s focus on removing corruption at the top...the bottom will be eradicated on its own. Cops take monies because they have protection from the politicians at the top to whom they pass on a part of the loot. Same with small babus who curry favor with their seniors and the political class. Remove the protection at the top and the lower levels will correct themselves. The reason I am opposed to including every single government employee is that it will make the Lokpal unwieldy and bulky. It will need to be a mammoth organization itself…..perhaps having lacs of employees. I am convinced that if this were to happen, it would become as corrupt as any other government department. The Lokpal is a body that should focus on removing corruption at higher levels.
(2) The structure of the Lokpal is fine. The Lokpal Chairman is proposed to be a serving or retired judge of the SC (and I guess from the HC as well). Of the other eight members, four are from the judiciary. So a majority are people from the judiciary.
(3) The judiciary should be left out. In the frenzy of the moment, we cannot make this cardinal mistake. I am totally uncomfortable with making the Lokpal an all-powerful body. The Lokpal needs supervision on itself….and the judiciary is the one to do that. I am happy that Anna’s team is showing flexibility here.
(4) The complaint that the law does not set up Lok Ayukta’s in the state is also misplaced because in a federal set-up, the autonomy of the states should be protected.

If both parties were flexible on the main points above, we can move on to the other important reforms that the task force must take up. The TOI lists ten steps today, but I had already written about them on 5th March. Basically, the idea is to look at the most significant sources of corruption:

(1) Electoral reforms: (a) Basically, we need to understand the problems associated with  coalition politics. A small coalition partner can extract a huge, disproportionate pound of flesh as part of the bargain. Smaller parties need cash to stay alive.....they are the ones who cause the maximum damage. If coalition politics is here to stay, then we must make changes that protect governance standards during such periods. Should we say that the government cannot be toppled for 5 years, no matter what? Should we bind the coalition partners together for 5 that they cannot defect mid-course in an attempt to put pressure on the ruling party (something similar to the Anti-Defection Act)? Should we disallow post-election coalition partnerships and allow only on pre-election ones? (b) We need to have strict qualifications for MPs. In today’s times, a graduation should be made a must. Now I know that there will be leaders who are uneducated and all that; but the times have changed. If the electorate is educated, how can the candidates not be? (c) Decriminalize elections. Candidates with serious chargesheets filed against them should be disallowed even if they have not been proven guilty. Mere complaints should not be enough to disqualify a candidate…..we know how many frivolous complaints can be mounted in India. Whatever we do, we need electoral reforms.
Election funding: Most cases of corruption emerge because the political establishment needs about Rs 1 lac crore every 5 years to fight elections. While election funding is not exactly banned, it is certainly not taken to kindly by the corporates. Maybe, the government should make political funding a tax-exempt expense. Maybe the government itself should fund the elections out of its consolidated fund. I have given this solution earlier…..maybe the education cess that existed till last year should be brought back….but as election cess. Also, the Election Commission should be realistic in setting maximum limits of spending per candidate. Today, these limits are so low that even if the money obtained has been obtained legally, 99% of the spending will have to be made “in black”. Unless we reform election funding, the need for corruption will never go away. Even if you and I entered politics (and I am sure we consider ourselves to be clean people!), we will become “corrupt” if we have to fight elections.
Judicial reforms: The judiciary itself is a huge drag on our democracy. There are two major reforms needed. a) There is need for faster decision making. The judicial process cannot take 20 years in deciding on matters. How can we deny Thomas the office of CVC if his case has not been settled for the last 20 years? What if he is proven to be not guilty? If there is a need for setting up more courts and having more judges, let that be done quickly. Let more law schools be set up if the talent pool needs to be increased. Most cases before the courts relate to petty crime – small theft etc. Let those be tried by special courts. Let special courts be set up for serious crimes – rapes, corruption, etc b) there is need to weed out corruption in the judiciary. Especially at the lower levels, judges are known to be corrupt. Every once in a while, corruption is detected even in the SC or the HC. Why is the judiciary shielded from the regular process of law? The judiciary is highly protective about its the extent that appointments of judges, reviews of performance, trials in corruption cases are all outside the usual rules of law and only the CJI can decide what to do in such cases? We need a good judicial reforms bill.
Bureaucrat salaries: Bureaucrats are professionals. While there is certainly a sense of pride in serving the country and immense satisfaction in wielding the power than comes with the job, it is a fact that they also worry about their future as much as we do. We get paid much much more.....the starting salary of a simple MBA is now Rs 3-5 lacs in the major cities. By the time a person has 10 years work-ex, his/her salary jumps to Rs 10 lacs or more. That’s how much our top bureaucrats earn when they retire…..after serving for 35 years. Why can’t our bureaucrats get something linked to market salaries? Sure, they get lots of perks....but they cannot carry those perks with them after retirement. Maybe those perks can be removed. A cabinet secretary (the seniormost bureaucrat must get a salary of at least Rs 2-3 crores a year; all other secretaries should be paid Rs 1 crore each and so on. Plus there should be incentives paid on the basis of performance appraisals. The same should apply to MPs by the way. If we have to join politics and and stay clean, surely we need decent salaries! Problem with this is that the government will go bankrupt just paying salaries! That’s why it’s important to curtail employment in the government sector. Now this is easier said than done…..the only way to do this is to stop recruiting people and let the normal retirement process reduce the size of the government. This has been successfully done in the case of the navratna PSUs. It can surely be done in the government also in a phased manner.
Make CBI, CVC autonomous: There is a dying need for this. The CBI should be independent, but it should still be accountable to Parliament the way the Election commission is.
Use technology: The ultimate last mile problem can only be solved by using technology. That’s why Nandan Nilekani’s UID project is so critical. If each and every person can be finger printed and retina scanned, then we can implement cash transfers so that all middlemen are eliminated. This will remove a huge source of corruption. Of course, opening so many bank accounts will be a challenge itself! Also, making sure that people don’t splurge the cash on illicit items like liquor will be a challenge.
Make laws simple and transparent: We need a special task force to look only at making our existing laws more practical. Take the Mining Act for instance which has led to so much rampant corruption in that sector. Take the Land Acquisition Bill which is more than 100 years old…..which has exploited poor land owners and led to widespread corruption. Even take the CrPC which is so antiquated. And let’s stop enacting laws that are bound to raise corruption even more. The recent decision of the Maharashtra government to raise the age for drinking to 25 years will necessarily lead to more corruption….
Government procurement systems need to be made transparent: Basically whenever the government gives out contracts, or buys things, there is huge corruption. This needs to be made more transparent….
Police reforms: The biggest bugbear for most people is the local traffic cop. Most people have gotten away by paying bribes. There have been recommendations made for police reforms in the past, but those have not been implemented. I don’t have specific ideas on this subject…..maybe others can enlighten us all.
Rewarding efficiency: Each government department must have service times and standards clearly mentioned for the public. This was part of the Jan Lokpal Bill and there is no reason for it to be removed….Even otherwise, we must be as concerned about governmental efficiency as we are about corruption. Most people prefer performing ministers (who may be partially corrupt) to non-performing ministers (who may be squeaky clean)…..why should this be an either-or?

The real truth is that corruption is a multi-headed dragon. It needs a mammoth and multi-pronged strategy to be eliminated. The above post is just a starting point for discussions. A task force must be immediately set up. Whatever we do, we must take cognizance of people’s clear message that they have sent through Anna’s movement. They are fed up with corruption. The Lokpal Bill has become the rallying point against corruption, even if the Bill itself is only a small step……

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