May 25, 2020
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House Of No Exit

A newer India must extirpate institutional indulgence for corruption

House Of No Exit
Illustration by Sorit
House Of No Exit

"Corruption in India is a high-profit, low-risk activity."
—(N. Vittal, former Central Vigilance Commissioner)

The Kerala CPI(M) is agitated over the state governor's decision to sanction the criminal prosecution of its state leader Pinarayi Vijayan for alleged irregularities in awarding a contract way back in 1997 when he was the power minister. The governor, in acting boldly—our governors show courage while proceeding against those not from the party in power at the Centre—ignored a recommendation of the state cabinet against the prosecution. The CBI has promptly filed the chargesheet against Pinarayi. (Note that it has taken 12 years to press charges against an influential public figure. It will take another decade for the case to come to its logical conclusion.) What is most galling is that the CPI(M) is more exercised over the constitutional impropriety of the governor's act rather than the corruption charges levelled against Pinarayi. This made for the usual travesty of the law in India where corrupt politicians and civil servants are continually looking for technical flaws in the procedure adopted by an investigating agency to get out scot-free.

One tool readily available to those who want to make money while holding office is the executive discretion to give or withhold permission to the CBI and state vigilance bureaus to file chargesheets in court after an investigation has clearly established guilt. The Prevention of Corruption Act 1988 currently requires such sanction only against serving public servants. The worthies in Delhi are trying to change the law so as to extend the favour even to retired netas and babus, so that those two classes can shed even the iota of fear of the law they now have. In the same league is the pernicious decision made a few years ago to revive the so-called Single Directive, whereby the CBI will have to get the executive nod even before launching an investigation against officers of the rank of joint secretary and above. Worse was the incorporation of this obnoxious restriction on CBI's authority into the Central Vigilance Commission Act and the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act in '03. (It is the latter law that gives legal sanctity to CBI's actions.)

It is widely known to everyone—including our honourable prime minister—that corruption among public servants in India is a cradle-to-grave phenomenon. One has to grease some lowly official's palm for getting both a birth and death certificate. I remember a case where a police inspector demanded money for expediting an inquest/post-mortem on the body of a boy killed in a traffic accident. The demand was made directly to the grieving father! I also know of a college where some staff members demanded a cut from the savings due to an employee who had died in harness. This was when the grieving widow went to collect the money.

I could be accused of stating the obvious and not suggesting a way out of the morass. What we need are not more stringent laws but a culture that shames public servants caught while asking for bribes or are found to possess wealth disproportionate to their known sources of income. Nothing else will help. We have a PM who, due to his incorruptibility, is immune to charges of impropriety even by his bitterest detractors. I am sad that he makes the right noises only occasionally. There is no display of passion or zeal in what he says. It is also widely known that he succumbs to political pressure to ignore corruption in high places. This was blatantly in view when he put together his council of ministers. This was a let-down for millions like me who admire him for his personal integrity.

In public life, an individual occupying a pivotal position can make a difference, as T.N. Seshan did. Improving our relations with neighbours is undoubtedly important. It is equally important that our image abroad is one that promotes investor confidence. Just now there are only few states where you can do a project without 'taking care' of the hands holding the reins of power. Unfortunately, there aren't any saints among our politicians. All of them seize the opportunity to fill their coffers when opportunity presents itself.

I will begin my campaign against corruption at our schools where I will explain to impressionable children what 'corruption' means and why they should not yield to illegal demands from public servants. If we can raise one generation of Indians who are resolved not to pray bribes we will have won half the battle. This is no mean task, because any such mass movement to 'brainwash' our children against corruption will be fought tooth and nail by every public servant (ministers included), who have a high stake in perpetuating the evil. But this is no reason why we should not at least try.

(The writer is a former director of the Central Bureau of Investigation, New Delhi)

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