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File the lokpal away

Bringing about another centralised structure is no way of fighting corruption. For that purpose, Panchayati Raj must be reinvented, writes Amitabha Pande.

india Updated: Aug 01, 2011 21:22 IST
Amitabha Pande
Amitabha Pande
Hindustan Times

There exists an astonishing perversity of consensus about the desirability of having a lokpal. Everyone seems to want one, convinced that it's critical to the crusade against corruption. Even the dissenters seem more concerned about the abrogation of the legislation's drafting role by a coterie of self-appointed 'civil society' representatives than about the lokpal per se.

The question is: will the lokpal make even an iota of difference to the bewildering diversity of rent-seeking avenues that exist within the State system? Will it transform the decision-making processes within the government and make decision-makers more democratically accountable? Is greater centralisation of authority in a public official and the creation of a whole new bureaucracy an answer to problems created by bureaucratic centralisation in the first instance? The answer to all these is an overwhelming 'No'.

A prescription made by defining the disease in such simplistic terms as 'corruption' can have fatal consequences. The votaries of the lokpal bill have neither attempted a diagnosis nor seem to have the critical faculties to do so. Yet, they offer a universal prescription with the smugness of a self-righteous quack.

Among the major factors that make the Indian State such a gigantic rent-seeking apparatus is its sheer size. This 'overdeveloped' State uses its inherent coercive power to encroach into ever-increasing spheres of activity. As the monopoly producer and supplier of a whole range of services, and by acting as the engine as well as the driver of the economy, it positions itself in a perfect situation to become a super rentier. Corruption is, therefore, embedded in its basic framework.

Moreover, the structure of Indian democracy is biased in favour of a centralised, unitary State in which the legislature plays a less important role than the executive and the federated units, and local governments get increasingly subordinated, becoming similar to franchise holders who operate a business for the parent company on a 'revenue-sharing' model. The enormous number of such agencies makes it impossible to fix responsibility and maintain any kind of transparency, as the power to say 'no' is decentralised and devolved while the power to say 'yes' is so centralised that the apex gets the highest share of the rent revenue.

It's well established that beyond a certain threshold, policing and crime develop a cosy vested interest in keeping crime alive to sustain an expansionary police. So the premise that the fear of getting caught and being punished keeps a check on corrupt behaviour is as naive as thinking that crime will be checked if the police are given even more draconian powers. For the dishonest, the deterrent value of a powerful lokpal means little more than devising more ingenious ways of escaping detection. Most corruption rarely comes to notice because the corrupt are very careful about correctness of procedure. So while those keeping vigil and investigators invariably look for deviation from rule, norm or procedure, the corrupt ensure that their meticulous paperwork will rarely bring their acts to notice.

In defence procurements, to cite an example, the approval cycle itself is so complicated and lengthy that the opportunity for each functionary or facilitator to collect his share of the booty along the value chain is maximised. At no stage does anyone need to circumvent the procedure because following the procedure itself provides the opportunity. Paradoxically, higher levels of procedural correctness and propriety only translate into more corrupt dealings. For the facilitators along the approval chain, it is necessary to keep the process moving forward. Before the procurement process begins, all prospective bidders open a kind of letter of credit at each level of the established chain of rent collectors. At each stage of the transaction, rent gets automatically paid at the corresponding level. It matters little who wins an order, because payment is made for the final approval being granted and not for a decision in any one person's favour.

No part of the procedure is violated, no rule flouted, no bias shown or pressure exercised except when there is a falling out among the middlemen or someone decides to violate the Thieves' Code of Honour. Fear of detection, prosecution or punishment has no impact whatsoever in a transaction of this kind.

On the other hand, fear of harassment from vigilance agencies has a paralysing impact on the honest individual. If he is also a doer, he is most likely to make mistakes and often falls foul of procedural propriety. If he knows that he has to constantly look over his shoulder before taking a decision, or that the consequences of making a bona fide mistake or an error of fact or procedure means being subjected to interminable investigation that will wreck his career, he will just stop taking any decisions. This paralysis has already hit many departments, like defence, where all major procurement decisions stand indefinitely stalled.

Internal file notations, where officers were encouraged to freely express their opinions and served as a fascinating record of the internal decision-making process, now undergo a rigorous sanitisation process before pen is put to paper. Officers who may not fall in line with such a procedure are simply replaced with more pliable ones. Inconvenient notations are routinely replaced to ensure that the file becomes a bland, controversy-free document, showing complete unanimity of approach, along the hierarchy. Files that may not conform to this sanitising routine are simply buried or destroyed and once the personnel concerned have moved on or out, a new file started.

And this is the situation within the ostensibly constrained environment in which the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG)-Central Vigilance Commission (CVC)-Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) triad function. Under a strong lokpal, we could have a situation where only the proactive rent-seeker will perform while the honest will either conveniently slip out of the decision-making process or deflect the issue expertly to put it into a spin so that no decision is possible during his tenure. As no one is ever penalised for inaction, delayed decision-making or nipping bold unconventional ideas in the bud, the servile, the nitpicker and status quoist will thrive. The lokpal will only ensure that such behaviour now gets wholly institutionalised and rewarded.

So should we simply learn to live with corruption? A true crusade against corruption must begin with radically rethinking and redesigning structures, institutions and processes. There are no shortcuts to this. The State has to be made to reduce the sphere of its activities and devolve most of its powers, resources and jurisdiction to the smallest, feasible unit of democratic governance following the principles of subsidiarity. Decision-making has to involve the participation of the maximum number of people and there has to be a concerted move from bureaucratic processes to democratic ones.

Budgets, as instruments of control and regulation, have to replace administrative hierarchy-based controls with clearly designated responsibilities to 'budget holders' for achieving budgeted outcomes. Internal delegation of powers has to follow the principle of 'maximum possible' rather than 'minimum necessary' and mutual trust has to replace mutual suspicion.

Direct elections have to be confined to the smallest identified unit of democracy and governance — village, block, district, and/or city — so that people have direct knowledge of the people they are electing and election costs are affordable for anyone seeking election. Elections to any other tier of democracy have to be indirect. This requires a complete rethinking of the architecture of democracy to bring it as close as possible to the Gandhian blueprint. In other words, Panchayati Raj has to be radically reinvented.

Sadly, the grand crusade against corruption has reduced itself to a campaign for an authoritarian bureaucracy, centralised controls and a further diminution of even the limited institutions of democracy we have been successful in nurturing. To prevent corruption we need more, not less, democracy.

Amitabha Pande retired from the Indian Administrative Service as Secretary to the Government of India. The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Aug 01, 2011 21:08 IST