Systemic causes breed corrupt behaviour

Social activist Anna Hazare has followed this up with a campaign that scored some kind of a victory against a seemingly reluctant government, which is now engaged in preparing legislation to tackle corruption. The attention corruption now receives restores some balance in the public discourse which has mostly been dominated by the government’s mono-dimensional theme of economic growth.

There is a need for a systemic approach to checking corruption. This can make the effort more complete. Focus of the recent anti-corruption efforts is more on policing — by the courts or by agencies such as the proposed Lokpal. This is about ex-post remedy, which is certainly important. There is equally a need to explore preventive approaches and address the systemic causes that breed corrupt behaviour by those holding public offices. This calls for a clearer understanding of the government and its functions.

To promote a more responsive and accountable government — one that reflects the democratic principle better — it is important to bridge the gaps. The government, which has the power, must be placed under corresponding duties. If the laws place citizens under a duty to pay a predefined tax, they must equally bind the government to a reciprocal duty to apply the tax revenue to predefined purposes. The ancient concept of dharma can be helpful in developing such reciprocal duties and in coupling power with responsibility.

Governments today perform several functions. A clear understanding of these functions and the avenue each of them presents for graft is necessary for making meaningful progress. The functions of the government fall into at least several broad categories, namely, developmental, regulatory, distribution of prerogatives, welfare, policing, procurement, recruitment and tax collection. Each of them has a different character and the nature of corruption varies among them. The classification I have attempted here is neither exclusive nor exhaustive. Obviously, there is some overlap among them. The classification is meant to help understand better the character of the government and in devising potential ways to curb corruption.

In the developmental function, governments take up major projects like laying roads, building bridges, power plants and so on. These projects involve huge amounts of money and decisions are made at the top levels. They are about big money, which is an important factor in drawing the wrong elements into public life — both civil service and politics.

The second group of functions, namely, regulatory is about promoting order in the civil society. This includes things like the sub-registrar's office for keeping records of property ownership, transport offices which perform a similar function for motor vehicles, factory inspections and so on. Here the tendency for government officials is to hold to ransom citizens who wish to avail these services.
Dubious rights
Next is the ‘prerogatives’ function under which governments auction some dubious rights they have assumed. State governments’ sale of liquor vending rights and the Centre’s sale of broadband spectrum fall under this category. These government rights are questionable, but they exist. This happens at the top levels and the ongoing 2G spectrum scandal provides valuable insights into the process. A first question is about the government’s right to sell these facilities to the highest bidder and then there is the issue about the use of the sale proceeds.

There is no denying that efforts have been made to address some of the issues. For example, citizens’ charters and mission statements have been developed for many public offices in recent years. This represents an attempt, at least in theory, to transition the offices from their traditional power principle to a more democratic service principle. The Foreign Exchange Regulation Act, 1973, (FERA) had an innovative device. Under FERA, permission of the Reserve Bank of India was required for many transactions involving foreign exchange.

The Bangalore Mahanagara Palike had boards of visitors for its hospitals. These boards included civil society members and were designed to oversee the functioning of public hospitals. This is based on the principle of participatory democracy that goes beyond elections and career politicians and bureaucrats having complete control over public resources. This is another mechanism that can improve public services and check corruption.

Government functions mostly in archaic frameworks developed in colonial times. Paucity of innovative approaches and vested interests both have contributed to their continuance. To tackle corruption better, it is necessary to undertake a systematic study of the government functions at all levels and identify the scope they offer for corruption. This can pave the way for developing new approaches in tackling corruption at a systemic level. This can help reduce the scope for corruption, which can be coupled with more effective policing.

The need is to re-engineer government and wean its agencies away from authoritarian and autocratic habits. This calls for a multi-pronged approach that engages a cross section of the society. With better systems in place, institutions like an effective Lokpal can provide meaningful oversight on an ongoing basis. In any event, we must be realistic. Perfection is, obviously, unattainable. This realisation, however, need not stop us from striving continuously to reduce the imperfections that now afflict our public institutions.

(The writer is an assistant professor, Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa)

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