Time for people’s movement against corruption

No organ of government is free from the itch of accumulating wealth the easy way, be it the powerful executive, the law-making body or the honourable judiciary
Last Updated 24 April 2022, 20:33 IST

Software has now acquired a new meaning – going soft on corruption. The software capital of India is now the corruption capital. We might have taken legitimate pride in leading the country in IT but the new epithet should only make us cover our heads in shame. Add to this the deteriorating law and order situation arising out of communal conflicts. We have provided the perfect recipe for neighbouring states to wean investors away from Karnataka.

Why have things come to such a sordid pass? Corruption is not a new phenomenon. It has been there for ages. Politicians and bureaucrats have benefited by it but it has also troubled governments, Central and state. The Rajiv Gandhi government was ousted because of the Bofors scandal, the Manmohan Singh government suffered defeat mainly on account of the 2G and Commonwealth scandals. In Karnataka, Bangarappa and Yediyurappa lost power due to corruption charges and now, Eshwarappa had to step down as minister following the suicide of a contractor who had alleged that the minister had demanded bribe and harassed him. Examples can be multiplied.

What is perhaps new this time around is the scale of corruption and the inordinate delays in passing bills for payment, driving the Karnataka Contractors’ Association to come out openly, accusing the powers that be of demanding an exorbitant 40% kickback for approvals. The procurement or tendering process seems to have turned vicious. Money is to be paid at every stage -- before the tender is approved, when the work order is to be issued, whenever an instalment is to be released and at the time of final settlement. Moreover, the entitled amounts are not released in time with the result, dues get accumulated, depriving the contractors of their legitimate payments and adding to the burden of the public exchequer.

Bribe-seeking by politicians is not confined to contracts. Its tentacles have spread far and wide covering almost all sources by which money can be extracted or extorted. The latest revelation comes from the pontiff of a Lingayat math who has alleged that the premium for claiming grants released by the government was 30%, although this has been denied by some other maths. What is to be noted, particularly by those unfamiliar with public transactions, is the demand of bribe even for grants released by the government, be it for schools, hospitals or welfare schemes meant for the poor such as MNREGS or PDS. In government, doing one’s duty is considered a favour done to the citizen!

What is the remedy? A number of commissions and committees -- two Central Administrative Reforms Commissions, one State ARC (one more constituted recently), the National Police Reforms Commission and so on -- have examined the subject in depth and made several recommendations. No sincere attempt has been made by any government to implement them, and where implemented, it has been more in letter than in spirit. Even the courts have found it difficult to enforce their own directives.

There are many reasons for the failure in controlling corruption but a major factor has been the fact that no organ of government is free from the itch of accumulating wealth the easy way, be it the powerful executive, the law-making body or the honourable judiciary. Without going into details, suffice it to say, when things reach an excessive level, even the partners in crime who feel cheated, rise in revolt and that’s what has happened now. But the real victims of the illegitimate deals are the people; it is the tax payers’ money that is misused, the quality of public services suffer -- potholed roads, irregular supply of water and power, poor public transport, delays in project implementation resulting in time and cost overruns. Sakala turning into Akala (anirdishta kala-indefinite time).

The time has come when citizens must act. The people of Karnataka have been known for their tolerance, though in recent times, some fringe elements have been exhibiting intolerance for the wrong causes. We must now become impatient to fight for a right cause. As the great American activist leader, Martin Luther King Jr said, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty of the bad people, but the silence over that by the good people.” The good who constitute the majority must now act.

Here are a few suggestions. Mobilising people on a large scale is not easy and takes time. Action must therefore begin with stakeholder groups, i.e., sections of people whose interests are involved like the following.

1) Contractors’ Association: As it has already belled the cat in a way, it must continue agitating till it gets a written assurance from the departments/agencies concerned that no kickbacks or premium will be demanded during the process of procurement and until their present dues are cleared. For their part, they must undertake to execute works according to prescribed standards.

2) Civic and Resident Welfare Associations: They must champion causes affecting the daily lives of the common man, such as issue of birth and death certificates, khata certificates, sanction of building plans, issue of driving licences and so on, which are not usually delivered until bribes are paid, failing which citizens are harassed. Similarly, other groups such as Traders’ Associations, Small Industries Association etc, must take up matters relating to their interests like obtaining licences and approvals or payment of mamools.

3) Use of Technology: What has effectively reduced corruption across sectors is the adoption of technology through online transactions and contactless delivery of services. Its scale and coverage must be increased and in these days of hacking and manipulation of the use of technological devices, continuous attention must be paid to security issues.

4) Dealing with big ticket and higher level corruption can involve policy issues, such as electoral reforms, amendments to laws and strengthening vigilance bodies like the Lokayukta. Intellectuals and think tanks must become proactive and champion relevant reforms till they are implemented.

Let me conclude with an episode about a brave and upright lady, Sharon Watkins, who was Vice-President of Enron, one of the largest American companies which had risen to dizzying heights. Watkins, smelling an impending scandal, warned the chairman of “an elaborate accounting hoax” but she was ignored; instead, she was demoted. Soon, the company went bankrupt. Ironically, it had once given its employees a notepad with a quote from Martin Luther King: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”.

Will the people of Karnataka break their silence or continue to groan under the weight increasing of corruption? The choice is ours.

(The writer is a former Chief Secretary, Government of Karnataka)

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(Published 24 April 2022, 17:24 IST)

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