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The steel frame is rusting

The bureaucracy, pliant and hardly accountable, is responsible for widespread corruption, writes Murad Ali Baig.

india Updated: Mar 03, 2011 12:47 IST
Murad Ali Baig

It is seldom realised that the nexus between venal politicians and their obliging bureaucrats allows corruption to flourish successfully in India. Without pliant bureaucrats, politicians would be utterly powerless and unable to amass their fortunes. Until the nexus is broken, corruption cannot be eliminated.

The BJP’s success in the recent Karnataka municipal elections, despite the corruption charges against chief minister BS Yeddyurappa and his clan, proves that corruption is not a big issue with voters even though it is a highly volatile subject among political parties who remain jealous of the spoils harvested by their rivals. For the common man, corruption is as commonplace as the polluted air they breathe and their dealings with the local thanedars, tehsildars, patwaris, court clerks, electricity departments, PWD or other government officials have usually involved an exchange of currency notes. They may be awed by the huge sums that politicians squeeze out of businessmen or the exchequer but mostly see these as games ‘gods’ play.

In India’s complicated bureaucratic system, it is impossible to get any paper moving without some ‘lubrication’. A typical industrial application will go from a receiving clerk to a dealing assistant, a section officer, an under secretary, deputy secretary, joint secretary, additional secretary, secretary and minister, each of whom will make their notes and recommendations. The file will then go back that long chain until orders are issued many months later. One adverse note, like the serpent in the ‘snakes and ladders’ game, will set the file back many steps.

In these circumstances, every applicant has to use ‘middlemen’ to follow the tortuous passage of their files and ease its passage whenever it meets a hostile official or obstacle. It would have been impossible for Bofors, or any other corporate entity, to have been able to move their files past several army officers followed by numerous officials in the ministries of defence, finance, home, energy among other departments without middlemen. Even state governments have large liaison staff in the capital to move their own files through the corridors of government.

If such corporate entities employing their own liaison officers is not considered corruption, why should outsourcing that liaison work to professional consultants or paying them fees for their services be considered corrupt?

It may have been naive of Rajiv Gandhi to have declared in Parliament that there were no middlemen in the Bofors deal but if Win Chaddha and others had been pushing their files, it was not a crime under Indian law. There is a paper trail of payments received but no credible case of corruption when 17 years of investigation, with the cooperation of Swiss and other authorities, have produced no evidence that any Indian politician or government official had received payments in exchange for favours. The company and its officials, though, have been so thoroughly condemned in Parliament and in the media that their guilt has become an accepted fact.

It is the enormously profitable but relatively safe spoils of office that attracts so many to politics. One desires to become a legislator not to make laws but to be in a position to manipulate the laws for sectarian or personal benefit.

The numerous scams involving armaments, land, fodder, games, mining, buildings and telecom could not have occurred if the government’s numerous regulatory officials had been doing their duty. Investigators and the media hound the beneficiaries and their political allies in corruption cases but very few government officials have ever been penalised. If the officers who had allowed the irregularities were held accountable, they would not be so obliging and politicians would find it much more difficult to bend the law.

As senior government officials are more difficult to manipulate, politicians routinely bypass them and give direct orders to junior staff to do their dirty work. This malpractice can be curbed if the government were to make it a punishable offence for any official to take direct orders from any legislator. If all orders to junior officials came in writing through proper channels, politicians would be handicapped.

India inherited its bureaucratic system from the British and did not follow the examples of Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and Britain who drastically reduced the number of rules and officials needed to regulate them, speeding up the process of approvals. In an age of electronic communication, paperwork can be hugely reduced, leading to transparency. But such necessary administrative reform will not suit our legislators and so India’s corruption will endure despite brave avowals of intent.

(Murad Ali Baig is a Delhi-based automobiles analyst. The views expressed by the author are personal)