Views | Restraining corruption without restraining democracy

Views | Restraining corruption without restraining democracy

We, and many others, breathed a collective sigh of relief when, two weeks ago, Indian politicians resolved the Anna crisis by doing what politicians do best: placating an angry public through high minded rhetoric and vague commitments. No doubt they will find a way out of fulfilling these already weak commitments. Or, at least, we hope they will. As horrible an affliction as corruption is, it is no excuse for violating the constitution and the democratic ideals of the country. Nor, for that matter, is it grounds for doing away with private enterprise as some have suggested. (For all the money lost in the 2G scam would anyone seriously prefer that we go back to the old days in which a single state-run company controls all telephone services?)

Fortunately, there are remedies for the sickness of corruption that don’t involve killing off the patient. Recent debate over corruption has focused largely on what form the new anti-corruption body – Lokpal – should take in order to punish the corrupt and to act as a credible deterrent. The activism surrounding the Jan Lokpal bill has mostly resorted to high decibel rhetoric, such as calls to gherao politicians’ residences, demands to hold a referendum etc – which we feel sets a dangerous precedent for constitutional democracy in our country. While punishing the corrupt is certainly an important component of controlling corruption, it is only part of the solution. If we are to have a real impact on corruption we must not only punish offenders but also reduce the incentive for people to engage in corruption in the first place and make it easier for the media, courts, and even ordinary citizens to spot and call attention to instances of corruption. In the high pitched battle over the Lokpal, there are a few basics that the public debate seems to be missing at the moment.

In this piece, we mention a few ways we can restrain corruption without restraining democracy:

1. Reduce red tape

Not all government regulation is pointless “red tape." But a lot of it is – and a lot of these rules are responsible for corruption at the very grassroots, often by the very ‘middle class’ or ‘common man’ that is now fighting for the Jan Lokpal. There is of course a real need to regulate and monitor things like the emissions of pollutants, but mandating a maximum floor space index of 1.33 in one of the most crowded cities in the world, as Mumbai’s government does? Seriously? How about cumbersome procedures in applying for ration cards or cooking gas connections in most states? Regulation like this only serves the interest of the bureaucrats who “enforce" the rule.

2. Draft clear and coherent laws

Malfeasance in the sale of radio spectrum and the construction of sports facilities may be making headlines now, but, over India’s history, one sector has engendered more allegations of corruption than any other: mining. This is no coincidence – there is little or no agreement on compensation rates for land and resettlement policies for affected populations. In recent years, real estate and Special Economic Zones have joined mining as some of the most contentious issues on which the different sections of society clash with each other. What this calls for, more than anything else, are clear laws. A coherent pricing guideline, clarity on sharing revenues and profits (between the centre, states and local communities), a just rehabilitation policy etc are steps that will help reduce opportunities for corruption.

3. Make it mandatory for CAG reports to be taken up by a JPC

The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) is the government’s auditor, which in recent months has played an critical role in unearthing financial irregularities – 2G, CWG, KG basin, Air India aircraft acquisition etc – and have been vehemently challenged by political parties. As a constitutional body, its credibility is impeccable. However, at the moment, there is no law that makes it obligatory for the government to act on a CAG report, even if it finds gross irregularities. Of course, pressure from the media and the opposition can force the government’s hand, but why not make it mandatory for the Parliament to constitute a Joint Parliamentary Committee to take up findings of CAG reports that point to corrupt practices?

4. Take ‘conflict of interest’ seriously

It’s no surprise that judges and politicians (or their immediate families) tend to act in their own interests. “Conflict of interest" laws may help ensure that their interests are also those of the public’s. Unfortunately, while India has several laws governing conflict of interest they are vague and inconsistently applied. While the ‘Office of Profit’ clauses preclude elected legislators from holding other paid positions in state or central governments, no such law applies on holding positions of profit in the private sector or non-governmental sector. How can we have cabinet ministers deliberating on policies that affect sectors where they have direct interests and financial stakes?

5. Increase availability of data

The opacity of much of the data produced by the centre and state governments is truly staggering. Researchers and journalists shouldn’t have to submit RTI applications to obtain basic data on spending or participation in public programs. Making such data available to the public in an easily accessible format would make identifying and exposing instances of corruption much easier.

This list is by no means exhaustive and readers may disagree with some (or all) of these measures. Our point is simply that there are options for dealing with the scourge of corruption other than throwing up one’s hands in despair or adopting draconian laws that trample on the constitution. Corruption is a complex, multi-faceted problem. It’s time we started coming up with serious, multi-faceted solutions.

Suvojit Chattopadhyay is a development professional with over six years of experience in India, UK and Ghana. Doug Johnson is a development consultant with experience in microfinance, impact evaluation, and payment solutions. Doug has worked in China, India, and Nepal.