Bureaucrats, Corruption And Few More Things
In the last week of October, all the government departments were celebrating the Vigilance Awareness Week—not merely supposed to be a protocol observed for the last fourteen years or so—but a harsh reminder to all the corrupt ‘insiders’ as well as potential and would-be corrupt outsiders plus the malicious ‘intruders’. It was in 1998-99, when Mr Vithal the then Chief Vigilance Commissioner started off the campaign in right earnest. A cursory peep into Wikipedia would let us know that Shri Vithal was an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer of the 1960 batch.
At the same time, celebrating the week was a way to recharge the batteries of the Vigilance system—to examine the various nuances of the structure and devise plugs for the holes, if any. The basic theme of deliberation was to inspect whether the existing mechanism of public procurement had enough charge in it or needed to be re-charged. Period.
Julio Ribeiro who has carved a niche for himself in the art and science of counterinsurgency, through durable results achieved against the Khalistan movement; did walk along the corridors of power, and that too for a considerable period. A former draftee in the Indian Police Service (IPS), he has served in a number of high offices. Well, somehow, he could maintain both the sanctity of those offices and along with that, his personal dignity. Inspite of meandering inside the labyrinth of jobbery for around three decades, he came out unsullied and at the moment is busy wielding the sword against the powerful swindlers of the day.
It is probably hard to digest these facts about bureaucrats. We have reached the infinite limit of skepticism. Thus, at times, we must be thwarted in a stentorian tone that the Indian nation still and yes, still, boasts of upright human beings who possess a non-breakable spinal cord with a nutritional cerebrospinal fluid at full throttle and those [wo]men could still be bureaucrats!
Coming back to the point in contention; once in his column at The Asian Age, this is what, inter alia, Mr Ribeiro disclosed:
“In Maharashtra, the bureaucrats and politicians sold their flats which were given to them at concessional rates by the government. A flat of 3.5 lakhs was sold at 3.5 crores”
Let us try to analyse Mr. Ribeiro’s revelations. A civil “servant” commits a most uncivil act of corruption and pockets hundred rupees for an investment of one rupee. A politician though, is probably expected to act in this brazen manner anyway.
On November 16, after progressing beside the countably finite potholes of my beloved city Kolkata, when I arrived at the infamous junction near our sole Airport, I saw something. The junction is famous for its traffic jams, if not for anything else. I saw a police personnel, in attire, in glaring daylight, was hanging, yes hanging, and believe me; he was hanging while holding the door of a lorry in motion. What an acrobat he was! You wonder, and contemplate his purpose.
No, he was not attempting to punish the truck driver for disobeying the traffic signal. He was merely grabbing his monetary share; his commission of ‘allowing’ the truck to pass through. No, no, the government takes its tax. That was supra-tax.
Finally, when the policeman fell from the truck, the fifty rupee note, too, fell along with him; I mean both fell, strictly obeying Galileo’s Laws of Motion. Inquisitively, I kept a strict vigil on him from my car, which was speeding away at the junction. The policeman did not have the spine to stoop down and collect the note; however, he was in turn keeping a vigilant watch around him. It was a clear tussle between a pair of eyeballs versus hundreds of eyeballs. To him, everyone at the junction was staring at him.
My car sped away and I don’t know if the khakee-clad creature could collect his currency note thereafter.
Will Mr Ribeiro or Mr Vithal take a note of this incident? Or is this incident a mere factoid to be dispossessed of cognition? No, this is the ‘fundamental’ ingredient which forms a stable part in the concatenation of events which forms the chassis of the ‘institution of corruption’ in the nation-state called Bharat.
Imputations through euphemisms and unwarranted incorporation of metonymy may heavily downsize the frequency of figures of speech overtly related to malfeasance; such an attempt shall, however be nugatory to make the afore-mentioned ‘institution of corruption’ uncluttered of entropy.
Julio Ribeiro tells us not to be awestruck at the magnitude of corruption involved in the Commonwealth Games or the Adarsh Scam or the Telecom Scam, because, according to him, such scams are going on ‘for ages’.
As an insider, his views do not need to go through any scientific test of veracity and hence verily attest the functionality of the very ‘institution of corruption’ in the Land of Gandhi.
Well, quoting from memory:
“Orient is a place where the scholar never takes a degree”
That was what specifically Mr. Curzon had to say regarding India in particular, and the Eastern hemisphere in general. Curzon—who left an indelible imprint on the political fabric of colonised India—considered India to be an enigma, a puzzle, by which even a seasoned administrator like him was flummoxed.
It is no wonder, thus, an outsider, whether it be an Englishman or any person from the Occident, still attempts unraveling the intricacies of the societal fabric of India and its consequent political and economic ramifications. We have scholars like the Frenchman Claude Arpi or a Mark Tully of the BBC and a Stephen Cohen of the Washington-based Brookings Institute devoting precious hours of their daily routine to research on matters pertaining to India.
What fundamentally confounds all the scholars about India is not how such variegated heterogeneity resides under a singular umbrella but how India still survives as a nation-state amidst all the chaotic population growth which at times challenges Malthusian concepts, and a vicious cycle of corruption existing as an untoward malice blackening the socio-cultural ethos of the nation.
Public procurement system is an inevitable arm of the day-to-day functioning of the executive which is bound by the Constitution to implement the laws promulgated by the independent and democratically elected sovereign legislature. The system deserves scrutiny so as to eradicate corruption which might creep in, either deliberately or inadvertently; either due to structural defects or may be due to the gross incompetence and negligence of the personnel concerned or due to the machinations of the bureaucrat-minister combo.
Since Independence, and till 1991, India believed in License Raj a quota based system and a potent weaponry for the injection of corruption into the political economy of the country. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the consequent ‘Domino Effect’ on the eastern European states leading to the demise of the erstwhile USSR in 1991, imported the IMF-flavoured concepts of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation into the lingua franca of even the hardcore Communist regimes and India, though not a Communist state in any sense of the term, also felt the heat.
Slowly, but surely, words like ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability’ as key features appeared in the lexicon of governance and public administration in Third World nations. Today, in the wee hours of the 21st century, one can ignore these terms at her[his] own peril.
A number of statutory and administrative developments which took place in India in the last decade deserve mention.
- First, the promulgation of the Right to Information Act (2005) cleared the blind alleys of the public procurement system.
- Second, the vibrancy of the media online, print and electronic, keeps on pressuring the political-bureaucracy nexus not to indulge in rampant corruption and nepotism.
- Third, and significant, is the upheaval of the Civil Society which keeps a strict vigil on any untoward “deal” be it in the lucrative Defence sector or in the Public Distribution System.
- And fourth, the constitutional pillars of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) as enshrined in the Arts. 148 to 151 of the Constitution, compounded with the institutionalisation of the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), have further tightened the noose on any lapse in the public procurement system.
From the administrative perspective, public procurement is based upon the sound principles of financial probity and transparency. For instance, any public procurement in India, be it for the Railways, the Defence or any Civil Works is guided by written manuals; wherein it is specified that a specialised committee needs to be formed for the purpose; viz. the Tender Purchase Committee (TPC) does the job for various such procurements.
Moreover, TPCs are formed at various financial levels each headed by suitable executives of adequate seniority in the scalar chain bringing in experience and wisdom so as to ensure propriety without losing efficiency.
Furthermore, for all practical purposes, the relevant TPCs float Open Tender Enquiries so that just competition is allowed amongst vendors in an open market. To add to this, deliberations of the TPC meetings are noted down in writing and such ‘file-notings’ can also be sought for by the general public through the instrument of RTI.
And the ‘top-in’ on this TPC is provided in the form of an Integrated Financial Advisor (IFA) an independent arm which monitors the whole transaction procedure and looks for irregularities. As a completely ‘outsider’ organisation but with plenipotentiary powers to audit the CAG is not to be forgotten at any cost whatsoever.
The procurements also conform to the general guidelines of the CVC and the General Financial Rules as floated from time to time by the central government. So, don’t you think that the above public procurement system as extant in India seems to be well within checks and balances, if not fool-proof. And do not the related procedural formalities appear to be ‘quite adequate’?
If that is the reality, then why we listen to graft cases to the tune Rs 175 thousand crores a phenomenal quantum indeed. Why do we keep on hearing about a ‘3G’ or an ‘Adarsh’ or for that matter a ‘Tatra’?
Wherein lays the loophole which allows the insatiable corrupt crocodile to invade?
Do we need a complete overhaul of the system? Or, do we need something else?
Actually, if we have to examine the rationale behind the existence of corruption in our society, we need a posse of anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists and historians, among others. The defect does NOT lie in the procedures; rather it is embedded in the psyche of the people.
It is not that corruption has come up only after Independence or it has raised its ugly, serpentine head in the last five to six years which may appear so due to the wider publicity given to it by the media but historically speaking, corruption existed in the sub-continent since the period of recorded history. And every society for that matter has the element of corruption. Isn’t Italy rampaged with the Mafia and scandalous politicos? Scandinavia might be an exception, nonetheless.
It is no great discovery to associate corruption to South Asia at large and India or Bangladesh as particular examples as sometimes claimed by the Transparency International. Moreover, not even poverty can be directly linked to endemic cases of corruption. Because, for most of the times, a wealthy desires to be wealthier through chicanery and we may cite umpteen examples in that regard.
A police constable demanding bribe from a truck driver is fundamentally no different from a Secretary or a Minister receiving cut-money from a contractor. In a similar vein, the truck driver is equally responsible as the contractor for the spread of corruption.
Some structural changes and edits, albeit minor, may surely be brought about in the procurement system no doubt, but for a cleaner and transparent system, the personnel involved therein need to enhance their values and ethics and necessarily uphold their integrity and probity.
- Probably, that is why, a Bill is being mooted in the Parliament to bring in the possibility of an “Integrity Pact” between the vendor and the purchaser in this case, the Govt. of India as a part of the legal contract. This is a 1990-born brainchild of the Transparency International. In this regard, it is noteworthy to mention that there already exists a CVC Communication No. 007/VGL/033, Office Order No. 41/12/07, dated 04.12.2007 for implementation of an Integrity Pact in procurement cases for contract value of Rs.100 crore [about USD 0.4 million] and above.
- Along with this, the office of the Lokpal or the Ombudsman might add an additional deterrent for the wrongdoers and at the same time, hasten the pendency of litigation.
- There have been discussions on amending Article 311 so that a civil servant alleged of corruption may be ‘removed’ from service prima facie, and departmental enquiry can proceed after that. But then, such an enactment could be construed as clear violations of the principles of natural justice.
- Another food for thought why NOT usher in a performance based promotion system in the bureaucracy? That [might] bring in efficacy and reduce indiscriminate and indescribable corruption. After all, we all want to work only when we know there is something to be achieved something tangible.
A passing comment may not be too preposterous though power definitely corrupts, but as an eminent academician from a national institute in India commented a week earlier in a class of macro-economics attended by this author a fair equilibrium point for ‘honesty’ could possibly be harnessed out of the Y-junction of a decent salary, merit-based promotions and provisions of punitive actions.
By Uddipan Mukherjee
(The author is in Central Civil Service. Any opinion expressed in this article in no way reflects the opinion of the Government of India and is solely that of the author.)