The issue of corruption has captured the imagination of a wide section of Indians. But if India (currently ranked 87th in the global corruption index of Transparency International) wants to make a major dent on corruption, it will need measures other than the lokpal. Countries that have tackled corruption rarely did so by relying on one instrument only.
Corruption is a symptom of a dysfunctional interface between the government and society. A lokpal is a good instrument for monitoring and investigation, and getting this office set-up right is of critical importance. But the moment also provides us an opportunity to initiate wider reforms to tackle corruption.
First, we have to consider the issue of how much discretionary power the government should have and where it should be placed. As James Madison, a founding fathers of the American Constitution wrote in the Federalist, ‘In framing a government to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this; you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.’ In India, the discretionary power of the executive has, over time, become too great. Laws and rules, contradicting each other, and accumulated over the years are open to interpretation by officials.
Second, corruption can be reduced through greater competition or contestability. If the services that people need are provided in a contestable way, corruption will decline. This has been proved in the case of telecommunications. Twenty years ago, every household in India wanted a telephone and people paid bribes to get ahead in the queue for connections. With the arrival of mobiles, no one bothered about fixed-line connections but corruption moved to a higher level to procure 2G spectrum licences. India got it right with 3G licences, which shows that more competition and careful design can reduce corruption. The opportunity for corruption exists wherever there are excessive controls and public monopolies. Easing access to these services will reduce corruption.
Third, greater transparency is needed wherever major financial resources are involved. ‘Follow the money’ is a good guide to look for places to prioritise. Procurement, licensing and other major public transactions are all areas in need of greater public scrutiny and transparency. The procurement and mining laws, where public funds and assets are involved, need major upgrading to bring them to global standards. The Citizen Information Act has been a significant milestone. But its use is not easy and public officials find many ways to withhold information. E-services are an effective step forward and wherever introduced, they have helped citizens meet their basic services in a transparent manner.
Fourth, we need incentives against corruption. Singapore had one of the most corrupt customs services in the world. It realised that to be a trade and service centre for the region, it would have to root out corruption. It now pays its civil servants the equivalent of private sector wages. Public sector wages have risen over the years in India as well and while not equivalent to private sector levels, they are nevertheless competitive. But the public sector requires more merit-based hiring to dispense with the system of paying bribes to get stable public sector jobs.
Fifth, election financing is a major reason cited for political corruption. The US faced the same problem around 150 years ago. Meaningful election financing reform could be enacted only in the 1970s, which has been further strengthened over the last 40 years. Two areas to start reforms on would be raising funds for electioneering as well as alleged vote-buying schemes.
Sixth, India needs a serious judicial reform to ease the backlog of cases. We also need more predictability in outcomes, both in the judiciary and in the administration.
Seventh, the bribe-giver must share as much blame as the bribe-taker. Clearing a bribe-giver of his guilt if he reveals the crime will only make the system more secretive.
India signed the UN Convention Against Corruption that sets global standards on tackling corruption this year. But it still has a long way to go to meet global best practices. The passionate response to corruption has sent a strong message to the government that citizens demand serious and urgent action. Such reforms aren’t easy as they will be opposed by narrow interests that have much to gain from the status quo.
If Kautilya in the Arthshastra could lay down the methods of dealing with corruption, surely modern India, with ambitions of becoming a global power, can take on the scourge of corruption. All developed countries had to tackle corruption systematically at some point. India now has a historic opportunity to do the same.
Ajay Chhibber is UN Assistant secretary General and UNDP’s regional director for Asia-Pacific. The views expressed by the author are personal.