I was recently invited to Chennai to attend a state-level conference of the confederation of more than 5,000 traders' associations, also called the Tamil Nadu Vanigar Sangankalin Peravai. More than 50,000 traders had come from all over Tamil Nadu.
Traders representing medium and small-scale traders, including first-level entrants, celebrate May 5 as Trader's Day, when they close shop to come together for issues they wish to highlight before the people and the government.
This time, their main concern, along with foreign direct investment (FDI), was the menace of corruption - the variety of ways traders are harassed by public officials for every little matter, and how they lose out on their business because of the delays or harassment caused. They wanted a way out.
The trading community had joined hands with the anti-corruption movement in the past. They had downed shutters to show solidarity with Anna Hazare's India Against Corruption (IAC) crusade. Many had observed a daylong fast, too, with Anna and extended full support to IAC volunteers.
They were looking for ways to counter the harassment due to growing corruption. After hearing several of their office-bearers and victims, I offered a three-pronged strategy for their consideration. They readily accepted it.
The ideas given to them are applicable to traders' associations elsewhere, too. The first one is to start a statewide toll-free helpline. Whenever a public official comes to a trader asking for bribe, instead of giving in, the latter must speed dial the number and lodge a report, giving full details of the demand, time, location, identity of the public official, reason for the bribe, persons present around him who are witness to the demand, etc. He should keep a record of the complaint number recorded by the traders' anti-corruption control room.
The control room, on receiving the complaint, enters it into the computer system and gives the caller a reference number. Afterwards, the incharge will forward the matter by email to the chief minister's office. I suggested the CM's office because the complaint could be against any public service department. Hence, this office knows best whom to send the matter for appropriate action.
The traders' association can then file a Right To Information (RTI) application at regular intervals to find out what action has been taken by the government.
This way, some public officials may get repeatedly reported. It may act as a deterrent. Today, every person in a small business has a mobile. He must use it for this purpose and save the message as evidence.
All inquiries would need to be looked into to check false complaints, or harassment of honest officials doing a difficult job when the trader concerned may be indulging in something illegal. But then, at least the matter is being reported and bribe not being given. The honest officer, too, can guard against false complaints. This practice can cut both ways.
But currently, the whole matter of corruption is loaded against public officials. People have no place to make complaints against corruption, hence they give in to avoid continuing harassment or cut delays.
My second suggestion was: join hands with India Against Corruption. I enquired from the audience whether they knew that Tamil Nadu is one of the 10 states in India without a lokayukta, which is a state body formed to independently investigate allegations of corruption against state government officials. The DMK as well as the ruling AIADMK in Tamil Nadu have reportedly stated that there is no need for such an anti-corruption body.
Traders need to become part of the common demand for a lokayukta. They also need to demand a citizen charter which makes delivery of government services timebound, such as licences, permissions, subsides or grants, if any.
My third suggestion was that that the traders' association should also run business schools in every district for the induction of young traders to understand business processes and procedures. Such as how do they get easy bank loans, payments of interests, quality of goods, hygiene and sanitation, and maintenance of their own accounts, etc? Currently, beginners borrow money at high rate of interest and get indebted for life.
Senior members of the traders' confederation announced acceptance of all three suggestions. What about other associations and trades? There is a dire need for such B-schools for the marginalised to improve employability and skills.