Shrinking moral space

Spiralling corruption

There are a few distinct features of the currently unfolding corruption stories in India. The amounts involved are mind-boggling (like the Rs 1.76 lakh crore in spectrum case) and far higher in scale than the earlier cases of corruption in the pre-liberalisation era.

Resources like land, energy, minerals, telecom spectrum are becoming increasingly scarce as the global demand for the limited resources is increasing at a fast pace due to the phenomenally high growth rates in the emerging world. Further, after globalisation, the competition for these resources is becoming global in nature which is giving rise to huge hike in the monetary scale of potential gains and hence the corruption.

Though the earlier licence-permit raj in the form of industrial licencing (limiting production, investment, pricing, technology) is mostly gone, the allocation of rights to buy/lease land for private purposes, to extract minerals, to use radio frequencies and government purchase contracts (as in CWG case) are still being decided by ministers and bureaucrats in a discretionary manner, flouting established procedures and opinions of well-meaning regulators. In that sense, it is akin to the earlier licence-permit regime.

And whenever charges of corruption are levelled against a politician, invariably the person would drag in names belonging to other political parties being involved in the same or similar scandal (example: CWG contracts, Adarsh housing) to dilute the issue. That is why, at best, the involved politician resigns — sometimes putting his own wife (recall Lalu Yadav-Rabri Debi episode) or relative or trusted friend in the same position to ensure that the case against him is not pursued by the government.

The opposition political leaders create some scenes in parliament or Assembly to attract media attention but no one is really serious about unearthing the full truth as that might involve some of their own people in the same or a similar case. The scandal is slowly swept under the carpet after the concerned person resigns — as if that is punishment enough. Meanwhile, another new scandal develops — new stories replace old stories in media and public memory.

Besides, the government investigating agencies like the CBI or the income tax department are used by the government in a selective and partisan manner. Cases against ruling party officials are investigated in a deliberately perfunctory manner, investigation is delayed as long as possible, cases are not properly presented before the courts and the courts take inordinately long time to dispose the cases.

By that time, the person goes to the voters, wins elections (sometimes from even behind the bars) and rejoins as a hero winning in ‘people's court.’ Now-a-days, with coalition partners changing all too often, today’s opposition political party leaders are also treated with kid gloves as they may become the potential allies in the near future. RJD (Lalu Prasad), DMK (Karunanidhi), AIADMK (Jayalaitha), BSP (Mayawati), JMM (Shibu Soren) are all ready examples.

Credit goes to news channels

The unearthing of some of the major corruption stories goes to the credit of 24x7 news channels all competing for viewership and advertising revenue. Understandably their interest lies in ‘new’ stories since that is what the viewers want. So, they would typically follow up such cases till some new stories break. After that, the government and the CBI would play their standard games, away from media glare. Moreover, once it becomes ‘sub-judice,’ the government agencies refuse to answer any further questions.

The left political parties, on the other hand, have so far not been implicated in any big-ticket corruption. Their USP lies  in ‘democratising corruption.’ They give thousands of their party cadres shares from the monthly subscriptions that small businesses, taxi drivers auto rickshaw owners, street hawkers, illegal miners, teachers and government office workers have to pay the party and the trade union which provide them protection when they violate rules or do not do their work. The police and the inspectors also get a ‘cut’ to look the other way.

In a sense, it universalises corruption and directly affects people the most. For example, the taxi driver refuses to go without extra money on top of  the metered fare. The street hawker occupies the footpath, forcing the traveller to risk his life by walking against speeding cars. The attendant in the hospital mistreats the patient, unless ‘tips’ is paid. The media is not usually interested in such petty cases of corruption.

What can be done to minimise the scope of corruption? One, the allocation of licences for exploiting scarce national resources has to be done not by ministers or bureaucrats but by independent regulators comprising of eminent experts and people with track records of honesty. Two, CBI and other investigating agencies need to be made autonomous and independent of the ruling government. Three, the Right to Information Act needs to be used by civil society organisations and the media relentlessly to unearth cases of corruption.

In addition, the media has to keep track and periodically publicise the status of ‘old’ cases. Citizen organisations need to be formed to fight for the rights of citizens as consumers and users of public services. Finally, people have to vote — not for parties but for individuals who are personally honest — and must not elect candidates who have been implicated in any case of corruption. But for this to happen, more honest upright people need to enter electoral politics.

(The writer is a former professor of economics at IIM, Calcutta)

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