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The Magic Bullet Mirage

May 9, 2011

It takes a whole range of initiatives to even minimise corruption, of which Lokpal is just one

Humans are complex beings: our physiology is complicated, our psychology even more so. The combination of such entities into a network — a society — raises the complexity by a few further notches. Each one of us knows this for a fact, since we experience it in our day-to-day lives. Yet, surprisingly, we look for single-point solutions — the magic bullet — to difficult problems. Religion is one such assumed cure-all, and a whole industry of god-men is built around this value proposition. Equally — and, again, despite our own experience to the contrary — many feel that the simple solution to intricate issues is simply greater force. The proverbial bully — individual, corporate giant or country — is convinced that all obstacles can be overcome merely by applying more or superior force. Thus, we see the use of force to “solve” complex religious issues (as in Ayodhya or — more recently and horrifyingly — Gujarat), or on stone-pelters in Kashmir or even on those dubbed ‘sympathisers’ in Naxalite areas. This, despite the experience that it is generally easier to open a package by untying a knot of the tough string, rather than pulling at its two ends — making the knot more difficult to untie — and trying to break it.

Yet, faced with the complex issue of corruption, many feel that a magic bullet (the Lokpal) will solve it, and that this will be ensured by giving the institution extraordinary power. The comparison with the “benevolent dictator” model is certainly unfair, but inescapable.

Many see corruption as the end-product of the system, and want to eradicate it through a strong, all-powerful Lokpal with full authority to investigate and punish. Some feel that the root cause is funds for elections, and so look at electoral reform as being the answer. Very few acknowledge that there are multiple causes, various drivers, different motivations and a variety of methods through which corruption originates and thrives. Tackling these requires correctives and interventions at various levels. However, even before that, there may be need for systemic changes — a re-engineering of policies and processes — so that the very scope for corruption is minimised.

An example of systemic changes which reduce corruption are policies that increase supply or introduce competition. These have reduced ‘retail corruption’ for items like cooking gas and telephone connections. Even in monopoly or government services, technology can be used to create ‘competition’. An illustration is the digitisation of land records and multiple points of delivery, which have reduced — if not eliminated — the bribes that farmers had to generally pay to get a copy of their land ownership certificate.

The impact of these systemic changes is reflected in a recent report by the Centre for Media Studies (CMS). This study — the seventh such since 2000 — indicates that the percentage of rural households which paid bribes has come down drastically, from 56% to 28%, between 2005 and 2010. However, in a crucial area like the public distribution system (PDS), the percentage of rural households paying a bribe almost tripled — from 8% to 22%. Bribes had to be paid mainly for getting a new ration card and to get the monthly ration, with amounts ranging from . 5 to . 800 for the former and . 5 to . 700 for the latter. The study also indicates massive leakages and diversion of foodgrains from PDS to the open market. There is no equivalent study of what one may call ‘wholesale corruption’.

In contrast to retail competition, which seems to have generally decreased at the overall level (as indicated in the CMS study), the liberalisation-privatisation model has spawned megacorruption on an unheard-of scale. This model has the dangers of crony capitalism inherent in it, as was seen in Russia in the 1990s. In India, top institutes produce MBAs who are known to get mind-boggling incomes; however, the new and bigger money-spinning MBA is the minister-businessmenadministrator nexus.

Are the solutions of reducing day-to-day bribe-taking — policy, competition, technology — applicable to more sophisticated, big-ticket corruption? One noteworthy point is that even for retail corruption, the reduction has required a slew of measures. For the more complex issue of highlevel mega-corruption, clearly there cannot be any single-point solution. Some — in keeping with the brute-force or “hang then from the nearest lamppost” paradigm — recommend strong action. A judge recently talked of castration as punishment for rape. Whether or not even such medieval forms of justice work will depend not just on the severity of the punishment, but its certainty and speed. These call for competent investigation and quick justice.

Among the more potent anticorruption weapons is the Right to Information (RTI) Act, which provides access to practically all governmental information and thus helps to exposure any wrongdoing. US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

This needs to be supplemented by strong whistleblower protection, the use of technology to bring transparency, and electoral and police reforms. The last is essential, if we are to see fair and fearless implementation of laws (rather than merely enacting more stringent ones or greater punishments) and professional investigation (instead of crude third-degree measures that often punish the innocent) to improve the dismal conviction rates. In addition, judicial changes that ensure speedy justice are essential, for it is only punishment that is speedy and certain that will deter wrongdoers. These and other multiple measures — including societal awareness, values and ethics — are the only hope of weeding out corruption; not some single magical silver bullet.


From → India

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