By Niranjan Sahoo
As the world observed International Anti-Corruption Day on 9th December, it is a good time to do a stocktaking of India’s efforts in tackling the most entrenched and widely visible phenomenon that devalues governance and erodes the average citizen’s trusts in the state. According to Transparency International (TI), India ranks very high (85 out of 180 countries) in the Asian region. Although the situation is lot better than 2013 when the country was ranked 94, India has a long way to go to tackle this perverse phenomenon. According to the TI survey, in wider Asian region, India has one of the highest incidences of bribery and use of personal connections to access key public services such as health and education. According to the same survey, state services particularly courts, police, revenue department, and hospitals are the most corrupt bodies.
Why is corruption so entrenched?
The roots of corruption in India date back to British colonial rule. The British administration, which systematically excluded much of the Indian population from key political and administrative processes, helped to institutionalise graft culture by enacting the crucial Official Secret Act, 1923. This colonial act made it an offence for any public official to disclose state information or secrets. This act continues to play its role in sustaining graft culture in the post-Independence period, although India was mostly caught up in graft culture due to overzealous state regulation, particularly when it came to economic activities, which perversely brought in the infamous License Permit Raj. This Permit Raj, which curbed foreign investment and severely stifled competition in the name of a “socialist economy”, ultimately encouraged a culture of bribery or rent-seeking activities for sourcing any business from the government. It created a black market for everything and smuggling of imported goods became a norm.
The real turning point for India’s culture of graft began with the commencement of economic reforms and liberalisation in 1991. While economic reforms led to the ending of licensing for industrial activities and the abolition of import quotas, thereby, removing many corrupt practices, this did not reduce graft. On the contrary, the economic reforms and high growth expanded the spaces for high volume corruption. Curiously, the rent seeking behaviour took on many new innovative avatars. While economic liberalisation ended many old types of corruption largely related to the license permit raj, the same phenomenon continues in some form or the other in several key sectors, particularly minerals, natural resources, and services. For example, the opaque and arbitrary allocation of coal blocks and the telecom spectrum (infamously called 2G) which hit the state exchequer, clearly points to the massiveness of post-reform corruption. So much so that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-II (2009-14) had to spend most of its time fighting a series of allegations of graft. To cut a long story short, although many key sectors of the Indian economy have been liberalised, the same has not been backed by the required political and administrative reforms. Most of the administrative and discretionary powers are still with public officials, leading to kickbacks and abuse of powers.
Steps to Check Graft Culture
Given the magnitude and pernicious nature of corruption affecting every aspect of society and economy, the Indian state has been making concerted efforts to reduce corruption. A serious attempt at this was made in 1963, when the then Nehru government set up the Santhanam Committee following the Mundhra Corruption Scandal. The Santhanam Committee minutely detected many key sources of corruption within the state, including red-tapism and administrative control. A notable outcome of this Committee was the setting up of the Central Vigilance Commission as an apex anti-corruption body. In addition, the government established the Comptroller and Auditor General of India in 1971 to audit the public finances of key institutions and to prevent incidences of corrupt practices.
This apart, offices of Lokayukta or civil commissioners were set up at the state-level to tackle corrupt practices. The first office of Lokayukta was set up in 1966. Following this, a number of Indian states have set up their own Lokayuktas. The most notable example of Lokayukta has been the case of Karnataka. For instance, in 2011, Karnataka Lokayukta indicted the then chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa in illegal mining graft cases. He was forced to step down from the position of chief minister.
In response to the 2011 anti-corruption stir by Anna Hazare who demanded to have a Lokpal or Ombudsman, the United Progressive Alliance government passed the Lokpal Bill in 2013 to tackle big ticket grafts. The National Democratic Alliance government took more than four years to appoint the members of the Lokpal. Ironically, this much promised institution has remained largely invisible in the fight against big ticket grafts.
Yet, what has done more to the anti-corruption crusade is the enactment of the Right to Information (RTI) legislation in 2005. As per the RTI Act, government authorities are legally required to respond to requests on information regarding government activities. The RTI Act has emerged as a key instrument against corruption. For example, an RTI application by two activists, Simpreet Singh and Yogacharya Anand, in 2008 brought to public knowledge the major kickbacks in allocation of flats in Adarsh Housing, a society that was constructed for survivors of the 1999 Kargil war. Similarly, the scams relating to the Commonwealth Games were also unearthed by an RTI applicant. However, the transparency movement, which created ripple effects in the political and bureaucratic circles, is now under stress. Not only has the current regime curtailed the powers of the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) via administrative changes and constitutional amendments, in recent years, it has restricted the scope of the RTI application too.
In conclusion, while corruption remains endemic and deep-rooted, India’s anti-corruption measures remain half-hearted and slow. This is largely because the vital institutions raised to fight graft lack genuine autonomy and a serious sense of purpose. Even a handful of anti-corruption institutions (CVC, Lokpal) that enjoy some degree of autonomy, have not shown any signs of being independent. However, fighting entrenched corruption should not be left to these handful of macro or elite institutions alone. This is because, while corruption that happens at the top level often attracts media attention and the occasional national outrage, a great deal of corruption, which affects the ordinary person, is at the retail level. While the CVC handles these complaints involving Group C & D level officials, yet for all practical purposes, the CVC is a toothless body. The only visible progress that has come to reduce corruption at the lower levels is the growing digitisation of services. However, tech alone will not end the corruption phenomenon, which is like a hydra-headed monster.
In short, fighting corruption requires bold structural reforms and a comprehensive refinement of existing laws. In addition, there is a need to urgently repair India’s broken criminal justice system, which, in many ways, acts as the real mothership of corruption. Cases taking years and decades to be resolved, including big-ticket scandals, encourage impunity and reinforce corrupt behaviour. Similarly, it is widely known that most corruption or kickbacks are linked to opaque political funding(evident in the current practice of allowing opaque electoral bonds) in India. In short, without major improvement in campaign finance reforms—particularly transparency, disclosures and accountability—it would be impossible to cut the roots of grafts in key sectors of the economy and society. Thus, as India aims to emerge as a responsible global actor, it is imperative for the political leadership to bring comprehensive political reforms including transparency in political funding, reform of justice delivery system, and maintaining the integrity of the RTI process to attack corruption from its roots.