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Combating Corruption: Try Technology

November 14, 2012

It is better to try and plug the leak in a sinking boat rather than to keep bailing out water, especially if the hole is getting bigger. Few will disagree that it is wiser to root out the cause, instead of merely tackling the symptoms. Yet, much of the movement against corruption has focused only on tackling the symptoms, the manifestation, and not on how to eradicate the cause itself. Thus, there are daily exposes and a cry to act against the alleged culprits. While wrong-doers need to be exposed and punished, a better strategy would seek to eliminate the very opportunity for corruption.

Such a systemic solution would have a long-term and sustainable impact. On the other hand, punishing the guilty is, at best, a band-aid solution: given the risk to reward ratio, one set of offenders will be quickly replaced by another. After all, the possibility of being caught is small, and the chance of being convicted is no bigger. Endless delays ensure that even this tiny probability is but a distant event. Effectively, there is little deterrence, while the gain can be very substantial.

Adding to the problem is the lack of societal aversion to corruption, amongst the urban middle class, despite their apparently strong support to the Anna movement last year. Thus, there is no social stigma for the corrupt; nor, so far, is there evidence of corruption affecting electoral prospects of a contestant. Industry associations, while emphasising corporate governance, integrity and ethics, are loathe to expel – or even name – member-companies that are known to have indulged in corrupt and questionable practices.

In this situation, trying to root out corruption by exposing individuals or companies, a name and shame approach, is hardly going to work. It only serves to provide endless fodder for TV news channels, publicity for the accusers, titillation for the viewing public, and ammunition for one or the other political party to fire random salvos at their opponents.

There is no magic bullet, no singular solution to the deep-rooted problem of corruption. Initiatives like to Lok Pal Bill, touted by many as the remedy for eradication of corruption, can – at best – be one amongst an array of tools required to tackle the issue. Any legal approach, even if the Bill can actually be steered through both Houses of Parliament, has inherent weaknesses in implementation: detection, poor investigation, long-drawn legal processes, and low conviction rates. Yet, the assumption seems to be that this new body (Lok Pal) will consist of only scrupulously honest people, a super-body of super-men, given extra-ordinary powers. However, what was proposed would only result in another massive, parallel bureaucracy, an Orwellian Ministry of Truth, with scope for further corruption; in effect, just adding one more layer of corruption.

The growing cynicism caused by daily reports of corruption, and the frustrations of an abysmally slow legal system, are making many wish for a strong and decisive leadership or a wise King who dispenses immediate justice. This is fertile ground for fascism. Meanwhile, each accused is presumed guilty, in a lynch-mob mentality amplified by media. In this climate, moving from summary trials in media to systemic ways of eliminating corruption is not going to be easy.

Even so, there are straight forward ways of reducing exploitative corruption. This “retail” rent-seeking is ubiquitous and most affects the common-man, causing much resentment because of its coercive nature. One widespread example is the demand for a bribe to provide a ration card. A choice of alternative service points, increased supply, competition – where possible – and transparency can eliminate much of this.

Use of technology and innovative “business” models can be of great help. Creating a common data base connected to multiple points of service can provide transparency and competition. Eliminating the monopoly of a designated service point can itself drastically reduce corruption. Computerisation of land records is a long-standing example of the effective use of technology. Digitization, a central data base and the ability to get an authenticated print-out of ownership from multiple points have together made the process easy and corruption-free.

Corruption in schemes like MGNREGA can be minimized by using the unique identity (Aadhar) to directly transfer funds to the beneficiary and also to match the worker and the recipient. Aadhar could be used in the food (PDS) and other subsidy schemes to ensure minimal misuse, as also in transitioning to cash transfer of subsidies. The use of Aadhar and creation of publicly-accessible data bases will ensure transparency and, along with independent social audits, can make corruption very difficult.

Collusive corruption in its “wholesale” form, akin to crony capitalism, seems pervasive and is certainly more difficult to contain, since the parties directly involved are both gainers. Transparency, RTI, and protection to whistle-blowers, are possible safeguards. Systemic changes, with clear procedures and minimal discretion, will also help as will technology-based e-procurement and e-auctions. This will require re-engineering processes, and using technology to bring in efficiency and transparency at all stages. However, since those involved in collusion are inevitably clever, tackling such corruption is never going to be easy. Integrity, ethics, professionalism and social sanctions are probably the ultimate solution. Till then, we need to turn to technology.

Technology too – like the Lok Pal – is no magic bullet, but it can provide transparency, access and efficiency, and be transformational. Importantly, it can be a strategic tool to prevent corruption; plugging the leak, rather than trying to continuously bail out water. It is high time that we brought technology centre-stage in the fight against corruption.

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