The government wants to send people who pay bribes to jail. But, it has refused to make a distinction between people who collude with officials and those who are coerced into paying up.
This means people such as Sumita, too, can be jailed.
Sumita lost her 10-month-old son on August 9 in Uttar Pradesh’s Bahraich hospital when the child did not get an injection. The staff delayed the injection because she ran out of money – Rs 30 -- to pay more bribes, she alleged.
But Sumita did pay a bribe.
And, according to a bill pending before Parliament, this would be a crime -- no less serious than that of the hospital staff who demanded the bribe. Both, if convicted, could be imprisoned for up to seven years.
“It is a stupid, heartless and thoughtless provision,” said Jayaprakash Narayan, a former IAS officer who kicked his job after 16 years. He floated a social organisation and later a political party to “change the system from within”.
Narayan said he was all for punishing people who collude with officials to get more than their due. “But people who are coerced to pay bribes are not criminals... They are the victims,” he said.
The civil servants and members of Parliament who drafted or recommended the proposal were removed for ground realities, he said.
The 2008 India Corruption Study found that the country’s poorest –daily per capita income of less than Rs 20 – paid Rs 883 crore in bribes the previous year to access basic services such as rations and police.
“It is not that they had a choice,” said transparency activist Anjali Bhardwaj.
Officials, however, said punishing bribe-givers was in line with the UN convention on corruption that India was a signatory to.
It was unfortunate that instead of delivering on its promise of good governance, the government intended to make people pay for its failures, Bhardwaj said.
Rajya Sabha’s select committee, which cleared the bill this month, has come up with a compromise formula but Bhardwaj said it was no better than the original plan.
The panel headed by BJP MP Bhupender Yadav has said a bribe-giver can be given immunity if the person reports to police within a week.
“Sumita may have been able to complain after her son died. But what if he had been under treatment at the hospital for 10 days? Does this panel really want her to risk antagonising the hospital staff while her son is still undergoing treatment at the hospital?” he said.
Narayan said it was strange that such draconian provisions for people were bundled in the same bill that didn’t allow police to even probe corrupt officials without the government’s nod.
He also wondered how investigators would get the evidence to convict bribe-takers if people who pay bribes – and are willing to depose against officials – were not given immunity from prosecution.
Clearly, the bill has been designed not to punish corrupt officials but to let them get away, he said.