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India can never be corruption-mukt because politicians don’t want it so

Insulating civil servants from political interference is one of the key principles underlying the proposals of the Commission is and this is the main reason why all parties have shied away from reform. Politicians do not want to lose their compliant institutions

columns Updated: Sep 24, 2017 00:38 IST
corruption,demonetisation,Aadhaar
The government is relying on digitalisation and computerisation to overcome the chronic inability of the administration at the local level to make payments honestly and deliver services effectively.(Reuters File Photo)

Earlier this week I spoke at the launch of a book on demonetisation by the economist Ram Gopal Agarwala. While Ram has crticised the implementation of demonetisation he sees merit in its outcome and has risked the wrath of most of his tribe who don’t by accusing them of “lack of understanding of the world of black money and the informal sector.” He was congratulated for having the courage of his convictions by another speaker, Ram Madhav, national general secretary of the BJP. I didn’t feel qualified to argue about the impact of demonetisation on the economy but I did stress the suffering it had inflicted on the small sector.

Ram sees demonetisation as a means to an end and the end is “a corruption-mukt bharat”. He discusses others measures that need to be taken to get there. I spoke at the launch because I agree strongly with Ram’s emphasis on the need to reform governance and his complaint that there has been very little progress on implementing the 10th Report of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission. The report points out that the Indian Civil Service (ICS) on which the present system of administration is based was the instrument of imperial power. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to point out to Madhav the irony of a party, which lays such stress on nationalism governing the country as the British Raj had governed it. Madhav said the government was trying to undertake reforms but facing resistance from the bureaucracy.

The government is relying on digitalisation and computerisation to overcome the chronic inability of the administration at the local level to make payments honestly and deliver services effectively. But in his very optimistic book about India’s future Nandan Nilekani, the architect of Aadhaar has written: “When it comes to computerisation within the state we cannot build new systems over a creaky base – we have to first reinvent our state processes to increase our inefficiencies rather than merely computerising what already exists”.

Of course, computerisation can be a help particularly in curbing corruption at the delivery point and the Aadhaar card is a remarkable achievement. Computerisation can also make matters worse when it comes to administration by creating information overload and unnecessary communication which wastes time. Whatever their benefits computerisation, digitalisation are not magic wands to be waved over the seemingly intractable problem of India’s bad governance.

The fundamental administrative reform required, which no party has yet begun, is the reconstruction of all the institutions of governance to make them suitable for the needs of democratic India. They need the inner strength to play their role in maintaining the checks and balances between themselves and preserving their correct relationship with politicians.

Insulating civil servants from political interference is one of the key principles underlying the proposals of the Commission is and this is the main reason why all parties have shied away from reform. Politicians do not want to lose their compliant institutions. The collapse of the police in Panchkula when the followers of Gurmeet Ram Rahim rioted was the result of political interference in the functioning of a compliant police force. Commenting on that incident Julio Ribeiro, one of India’s most-respected retired police officers said: “Politicians of all parties and ideologies treat the bureaucracy and the police as their private fiefdoms that will bow to their wishes as and when demanded.”

But the blame for the institutional decay doesn’t end with politicians. The Commission’s report says responsibility for insuring the impartiality of the administration has also got to be shared by civil servants and they as Madhav said seem equally opposed to this.

So what is to be done? Ribeiro says only public pressure can sway politicians. Perhaps he’s right. If Indians raise their voices so loudly that politicians see there are votes in administrative reforms the rot in the institutions of India might be stemmed and they might at last become Indian rather than crumbling relics left behind by a foreign ruler.

To say India would be corruption–mukt would be a step too far. I know no country where there is no corruption at all but India would certainly be far less corrupt.

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Sep 23, 2017 17:09 IST