Thursday, October 20, 2011

Now we know why Kiran Bedi doesn’t want NGOs under the Lokpal….

Ahaa! Kiran Bedi’s been caught with her hand in the cookie jar. Claiming business class fares from conference organizers even while traveling economy. Very good indeed. I remember many students graduating out of colleges doing this when appearing for job interviews. The companies pay them first class train fares and they travel 2nd class pocketing the difference. Nothing different that Ms Bedi has been doing here. She’s over-claiming too and her defence that she’s not pocketing anything personally but passing every bit of the saving on to her NGO doesn’t cut any ice with me.

One other thing before I explain why it doesn’t cut ice with me. Not only is she traveling economy while claiming business fares, she is traveling subsidized economy. Subsidized by the Government of India. In other words, the people of this country. Claiming 75% discount (rightfully given her past recognition) on the basis of her Gallantry Award. As per the figures given in the Indian Express, there are trips in which the difference between her claims and the actual spends is as high as Rs 55,000. There are also examples when she has claimed for traveling by a different route than she actually undertook. Now while a common college student may be forgiven for his/her small tricks, it is not possible for Ms Bedi to seek the same forgiveness.

There is this other small point about who is losing out in this deal. The Government of India gives Kiran Bedi a travel concession of 75% on her economy class ticket. By claiming the full fare from the organizers, this 75% discount is pocketed away by her NGO. So indirectly, it is the Government that is paying money to the NGO. Obviously without any knowledge of what is going on. How fair (or should I say fare!) is it, Ms Bedi, that you have been duping the government like this?

Let me raise the political pitch a bit (just for the fun of it!). That money that you (sorry your NGO) “pocketed” Ms Bedi could have helped Air India stay profitable (not true; but such emotional pitches are often not true!). At the very minimum, that money could have rightfully stayed with Air India and they would have made lesser losses (very true! And the government would have had to fund Air India lesser too). Let’s raise the pitch a little more Ms Bedi. The money that the government saved could have gone on to help the lives of a few hundred or thousand poor Ms Bedi. Haven’t you denied the poor the benefits they could have got – if only you (sorry your NGO!) hadn’t salted away so much government subsidy?

I often wonder what the definition of corruption is. The Oxford Dictionary defines corruption as dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power, typically involving bribery”. Was Ms Bedi not dishonest? She says that her event organizers knew that she was doing what she was doing. Today’s TOI says that at least two organizers they spoke to had no idea about this. Is this not a fraud? The Oxford Dictionary defines fraud as “wrongful or criminal deception intended to result in financial or personal gain”. Is Ms Bedi’s act not one of deception? Is her gain (though not personal) not a financial gain? The definition of fraud clearly uses OR between financial and personal gain. Coming back to the definition of corruption… Ms Bedi not in a position of power? She’s a Magsaysay Award winner; an ex-DG of the police; an important and much sought-after member of Team Anna; she can meet any government minister or senior corporate head-honcho whenver she wants to (just look at the list of donors to her NGO and you will see her clout). If she is not in power, who is?

The common man’s definition of corruption relates largely to the government. This argument was used even by Team Anna to stay out of the issue of corruption in one’s personal lives (so if Anna’s followers were corrupt; that was clearly outside the purview of Team Anna). In the past, corporate head honchos who illegally availed of government funding or resources (for their companies mind you! Most of their companies have public shareholders too) have been called corrupt and many even sent to jail. By availing of government discount on air tickets, isn’t Ms Bedi also liable to be called corrupt?

There’s another angle to this. Every NGO is supposed to declare its list of donors and the India Vision Foundation site certainly does that. There are more than a hundred donors including some very eminent names like Soli Sorabjee, Hindustan Unilever Ltd, Infosys Foundation, Bharti Walmart, Lehman Bros etc (see her power!). One simply has to assume that these people were impressed by the work of this foundation and contributed to it and they had nothing to do with the power that Ms Bedi wields! But Ms Bedi, why is the name of the Government of India, or Air India not there in the list? If they have contributed to your NGO, shouldn’t their names be there?

If the Government of India is such a big contributor to your NGO, then shouldn’t your NGO come under the jurisdiction of the Lokpal? Since almost all NGOs – if not all – avail of tax breaks from the government, isn’t it necessary for all of them to come under the Lokpal? What if the NGO (and I am not suggesting that Ms Bedi’s NGOs does this) spends money on other activities of its Chairperson; something that couldn’t have been afforded if this “extra income” hadn’t been there? Activities like entertaining guests, traveling for global conferences at one’s own expense, etc? When the tax authorities look at a company’s books, there are so many legitimate expenses – incurred for business activities – they deny as being personal in nature while in reality they are purely business expenses. So can we deny that many expenses an NGO incurs are difficult to classify as being of business or personal nature? Why shouldn’t the Lokpal then check if there are personal expenses in the books or not?

But apart from all this Ms Bedi, there is the question of moral and intellectual honesty. No one is saying that you pocketed the money. But could you have had some intellectual honesty in coming clean about this before the Indian Express broke the story? If you claim that conference organizers knew of this system of yours, couldn’t you have made it standard practice to send them an email explaining this system? Did you tell Anna that you were doing this before joining his movement? If your only defence is that you contributed it all to the NGO – then what is wrong with what another blogger on this same website wrote: “Because if one chooses to buy the argument what is stopping DMK from saying that the money made from 2G scam was used for distributing free sewing machines to the poor? Or Congress, from saying that the money from the CWG scam was spent to fund some such poor-friendly initiative. Do A Raja, Kanimozhi, Suresh Kalmadi and the lot in Tihar, then get a clean chit? What is Anna Hazare agitating against then?” (Abantika Ghosh – Corruption is in the way Ms Bedi – dated 20th October)….

Ms Bedi, the sums involved are small and the work you do is generally very good. I support your work. This post of mine is only to request you to please please shed a little bit of your “holier than thou” attitude. Just like you will not quit from Team Anna now (unless you are proven guilty), please please don’t ask for others to quit before they are proven guilty. Please please declare all such other practices that have not come to light yet just as you would like ministers to do so. Please please don’t throw stones at those who live in glass houses if you live in one too…..And lastly, please please don’t accuse media of hunting for you simply because you are an activist. This is not the struggle that every activist faces. There are a million others who don’t do what you do Ms Bedi. Don’t hide behind Anna’s halo. Come out in the open, apologize, and correct your ways. We still think you are an awesome person……that doesn’t change.

The real truth is that what Ms Bedi has been doing is ethically, legally and every-which-way wrong. Going by the dictionary definition of corruption, it is also a corrupt activity. The amounts may add up to only a few lacs, but that’s not the point. She should apologize to the public, maybe step down from Team Anna, ask for a full investigation of her NGO and agree to include NGOs under the Lokpal – basically rid herself of this smear. Most of all, she should apologize to Anna – on whose coat tails she has risen to so much popularity…..


  1. There is nothing wrong about this. While the organizers do pay business class fares, it is completely upto her to decide whether I should travel economy or business. She is not legally bound by the organizer that she has to travel business class. It is her personal wish.

    Where the money goes is also an irrelevant question - whether she pockets her money or gives it to an NGO is of absolutely no concern as it is her personal account.

    The fact that government gives a 75% concession is not obligatory upon her in any which way. The purpose of providing the 75% concession has not been defined by the government. If we were to question that, then thousands of questions would arise on how ministers have been misusing their travel expenses.

    If you are comparing this to Suresh Kalmadi, A Raja etc, then this is no way comparable. These people were accountable to the citizens of India. Kiran Bedi is not accountable to anyone.

    Last, but not the least, why should anyone be worried about who is contributing to the funds in her NGO? Anyone with similar levels of influence will have a generous clientele.

    Kiran Bedi's popularity is not on the coat of Anna. She is already established as someone, who has the audacity to challenge the system

    Looking at corruption purely from a dictionary definition - even God can be proved corrupt.

  2. KB is fully justified in keeping the change with her. But she should declare it as her income and pay up income tax. Then she can go on and donate to her NGO. That completes the picture. However, she also needs to inform the NGOs that she is charging them this way. Claiming to be a Robinhood is no defence; being an ex-cop, she should know better