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Poor ethics or a flawed system?

mumbai Updated: May 20, 2011 15:03 IST
Ashwini Kulkarni
Ashwini Kulkarni
Hindustan Times
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Pick up any newspaper these days. The headline is invariably about a scandal: IPL, Adarsh Society, Commonwealth games and now the 2G spectrum scam.

It is almost as if our whole body politic is afflicted with the cancer of moral turpitude and the corruption we are witnessing every day is an inevitable consequence. But even cancer has antidotes. At least there is effort to trace its cause and find preventive and curative measures.

Why do we not do the same for corruption? Why do we not analyse the inherent flaws in the system that tolerates or even encourages corruption and try to correct them?

Transparency International’s corruption index ranks India 87th in a sample of 178 countries with Denmark earning the distinction of the least corrupt country. Some of the least corrupt countries are New Zealand, Singapore, Finland, Sweden and Canada in that order. The four most corrupt countries are Somalia, Burma, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Would we say the Kiwis, Singaporeans, Finns, Swedes and Canadians are born with better morals than Somalis, Burmese, Afghans and Iraqis?

Clearly, there is a pattern with developed countries characterised by a superior quality of institutions exhibiting low level of corruption.

A developed country is a country with developed institutions. Well-functioning institutions ensure that social interaction is fair way, contracts are enforced and individual rights are honoured. When there is accountability and transparency in transactions, individuals feel reassured that all dealings will be above board and cheaters will be punished.

Cheating becomes rare because it brings stigma and quick repercussions. Honesty, rather than deception, becomes the social norm. There is greater mutual trust among citizens. Well-functioning institutions play a role in shaping the ethics in a society and are a result of good social norms.

If there is no transparency or accountability and the possibility of detection and punishment is remote, corruption becomes the social norm and the country slips to 87th place on the transparency scale.

Badly designed institutions can cause a slide in ethical norms. Of all the things the Licence Raj has been blamed for, the worst has been the slide it caused in ethical norms. The discretionary powers conferred on bureaucrats with little transparency and accountability accelerated this slide.

We did not think it was beyond our means to implement economic reforms that largely dismantled the Licence Raj. The question is whether we can now undertake administrative reforms too.

Information technology can be used to improve transparency. Consider the implementation of the national rural employment guarantee scheme in Andhra Pradesh. All dues are transferred using IT infrastructure. The records are on the internet. This system has reduced irregularities.

Another tool we have is the Right to Information Act. If IT makes it easier to save information and trace it, the RTI makes it possible for ordinary citizens to retrieve it.

Transparency enhances accountability, as does external monitoring. Every institution has to have a grievance redressal mechanism. When people can get their grievances addressed, their apathy is replaced by a spirit of getting a wrong undone and officials can then no longer take the public for granted.

These are not remedies that are beyond our reach. They have have been tried successfully in some states. But we must act now. The fruits of our economic reform will sour until we have administrative reform.
The views expressed by the author are personal

(Ashwini is a director at Pragati Abhiyan, an
organisation that works with
tribals in Nashik)