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The parts of the sum

Not just MPs, but the media and civil society must also review State spending to stem corruption, writes Rajeev Chandrasekhar.

india Updated: Mar 03, 2011 13:35 IST

Corruption has always seemed to be an inseparable part of our politics and government. The recent exposures have reinforced this feeling. India seems like a patient terminally ill with the cancer of corruption — be it the hosting of the Commonwealth Games, the Adarsh housing society scam, allocation of 2G spectrum scam, land scams in Karnataka or the activities of powerful lobbyists like Niira Radia whose influence extends from manipulating the media to ensuring appointments of ministers.

These incidents remind us how much we have declined as a country. It’s ironic that these revelations are coming to light so soon after US President Barack Obama’s visit to India, when he proclaimed that ‘India is not emerging, but has emerged’. In the context of the exposes, the country seems to be emerging as a banana republic.

That corruption is enabled and caused by the government and political leadership is without dispute. The system stinks today because the people at the top cause and enable the stink, helped by their cosy, illicit relationships with businessmen. Both in Delhi and various other state capitals, politicians enrich businessmen who, in turn, use money to capture public policy, politics, media and other institutions and the vicious cycle continues.

As Raghuram Rajan, honorary economic advisor to the prime minister recently pointed out, almost all billionaires in India have created their wealth ‘because of their proximity to politics and politicians’. A Newsweek article said India has the world’s third-largest number of billionaires, most of them emerging out of areas like infrastructure, real estate and mining — businesses heavily influenced by government and politics. White-collar crime in India never seems to get punished, nor are corporate criminals (a vital player in every scam) hardly ever brought to book. Bernie Madoff in the US is already in jail on a 150-year sentence, while in India, Satyam’s B Ramalinga Raju, nabbed around the same time as Madoff, can be out on bail.

India’s growth over the last decade has meant that it is far wealthier and confident of its standing among the nations of the world. However, somewhere along the way, all of us have been carried away by the slick spin of economic growth, without asking questions about the nature and consequences of this type of growth.

The underbelly of our growth story is that the government’s increased spending budgets for sectors like real estate, construction, mining and infrastructure are responsible for our growth numbers. All these areas have significant corruption associated with them. This, in a sense, implies that the current economic growth model has the cancer of corruption built into it. Economic growth has helped the government earn more revenues and, therefore, enabled it to spend more too.

This year alone, the government’s budget is R10 lakh crore. If the late Rajiv Gandhi was right in estimating that only 15 paise out of every rupee reached the people, then the leakages (a polite word for corruption) will be of the order of R8.5 lakh crore (of which former telecom minister A Raja is said to have taken R1.76 lakh crore). The government’s inaction leads us to believe that corruption is an intrinsic consequence of this model of growth.

It is hard, even for the most cynical Indian, not to be angered by these examples of corruption. Exploitation because every rupee that a political decision gives to a private interest is a rupee removed from the public budget. When such transfers (or robberies) of wealth from the public/State to a private interest runs into lakhs of crores, then you understand why after 60 years of Independence, over 400 million Indians still suffer from acute poverty and destitution, our health and education services are still below par or not available to all, our teachers, doctors and police are underpaid, the veterans of our armed forces need to fight for their pensions and how politicians and their families suddenly become rich.

As I write this, there are cases of public sector bankers being nabbed for giving loans against bribes. But then, why blame the officers for corruption when their political masters are busy making hay? Many of my colleagues in Parliament are suffering from acute embarrassment and shame, and feel a hostility build up across the country towards the political class. A senior and much respected parliamentarian told me with genuine anguish, “I didn’t work all these years in public life to see India become this.”

There are changes required in the way Parliament oversees government spending and financial decisions. Let’s take this current standoff regarding a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe into the 2G spectrum allocation. I believe the JPC is a legitimate tool of parliamentary oversight. Given the need for better parliamentary oversight on the government, the demand for a JPC is legitimate and justified given the magnitude of the losses arising out of this particular scam.
Given the propensity of governments to reduce governance to a form of legislating and spending — to have grand legislations and programmes with little or no outcome but big budgetary allocations, and secondly, to enter into very valuable PPP contracts where public assets are in play for private interests — sound financial oversight of the executive and the government, not just by Parliament but by media and civil society, is critical.

Government spending and contracts today are black holes into which taxpayers’ money is shovelled with little or no outcome and accountability. This unaccountable spending is the breeding ground for corruption and nepotism. Better and more effective oversight of government finances by Parliament will also create a ‘value for money’ and ‘we are trustees of public money’ culture within the government.

It is critical for the credibility of both Parliament and parliamentarians.

Rajeev Chandrasekhar is a Rajya Sabha MP

The views expressed by the author are personal