CURRENT ISSUE JULY 07, 2003
COVER STORY: CORRUPTION
He had been on the job for just about two years. His gross salary per month: Rs 26,000. His net worth: Rs 2.82 crore. Even if he had not spent a paisa of his salary, Tirloki Nath Sharma, chief electrical inspector, Punjab State Electricity Board, would have accumulated only Rs 6,24,000. In fact, at the same salary he would have required 90 years to collect the moolah that was found on him. So how did Sharma strike it rich? Very simply, he was collecting money to issue NOCs, taking bribes for ensuring uninterrupted power supply and certifying that industrial units were consuming less power (at lower loads) than they actually were and taking a cut for it.
It was easy money till such time that Sharma walked the talk carefully. On May 28 he tripped. Obviously Sharma had pushed Jaswinder Singh Walia of Woolwaze, a Ludhiana-based company, to the wall. As Walia paid Rs 55,000 for clearing a file for a new connection, officials of the Punjab Vigilance Bureau caught Sharma red-handed. Sharma, it transpires, had meticulously maintained a diary that revealed he was collecting Rs 9 -18 lakh a month.
Across India, Sharma's story would ring a bell but alarm almost none. After all bribes are now being given and taken with aplomb in the chambers of ministers. Last month the CBI arrested R.Perumalswamy, personal assistant to Gingee Ramachandran, then Union minister of state for finance, for accepting a bribe of Rs 4 lakh from a deputy commissioner of Income Tax, Anurag Vardhan, for an assured transfer. Perumalswamy's audacity was incredible. Besides Rs 69 lakh in cash, the CBI also recovered blank cheques worth Rs 85 lakh. That the corrupt were willing to accept bribes in cheques is a clear signal that corruption has almost been institutionalised in the Indian system. Says former cabinet secretary and India's Ambassador to the US Naresh Chandra: "The size of the problem is far worse than the exaggerations of the most cynical. We need to first recognise the magnitude of the problem."
To get an idea of the magnitude, consider these figures. Between 1996 and 2000, the CBI and the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) investigated 13,265 individuals for corruption. The CBI registered 2,256 cases under the Prevention of Corruption Act between 1998 and 2001. Of these 41 were IAS officers, four IPS and 23 from the IRS. About 100 sanctions for prosecution against IAS officers have been granted by the CVC since 1990. They include 33 in the past two years. According to this data, only one IAS officer has been convicted by a court of law.
Alarmed by increasing complaints and lack of deterrence, the Prime Minister's Office set up a special anti-corruption unit in 1998 as a salutary measure. Since its establishment, it has received complaints of corruption against 7,054 public servants.
Corruption is not new-Indira Gandhi infamously described it as "a global phenomenon". It was a concern discussed in detail even at the high table at the recent G-8 summit. What is worrying leaders is its spread and magnitude. Intervening in a debate on corruption in the bureaucracy in the Rajya Sabha on May 7, Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani said that out of the 186 cases pending against IAS and IPS officers, the "overwhelming majority related to corruption charges". The most scathing criticism of the range and magnitude of corruption came from Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. At a meeting of the National Integration Council in 1999, Vajpayee said, "People often perceive the bureaucracy as an agent of exploitation rather than a provider of service. Corruption has become a low-risk and high reward activity."
Theoretically, corruption is a very high-risk activity. Technically, corruption is being monitored at different levels: the CBI, the CVC, the vigilance organisations within government departments and the anti-corruption bureau. The reason why corruption has become a low-risk and high reward activity is because there are hardly any convictions. To start with, babudom virtually insulates its kind from prosecution. Even those who are presented in court have managed to subvert and manipulate the system. The criminal justice system has failed the aggrieved and encouraged the corrupt.
Nothing gives the flavour of delays as well as this case from Sikkim. On August 7, 1984, the CBI filed a case against P.K. Pradhan, IAS and former secretary, rural development, Sikkim, for awarding contracts worth Rs 1.62 crore to favoured contractors. The CBI filed a charge sheet on September 14, 1994 in the court of the Special Judge, Gangtok, but Pradhan (who was charged along with the former Sikkim chief minister Nar Bahadur Bhandari) managed to delay trial by challenging the filing of the charges against them in the Sikkim High Court. On May 12, 2003, the high court asked both Pradhan and Bhandari to face trial for corruption.
Thanks to the delays that have crippled the criminal justice system, corruption is now all pervasive and costs the country around 1.5 to 2 per cent of its GDP growth.
Transparency International, the global corruption watchdog, rates India as one of the most corrupt nations-73rd out of 102-while the World Economic Forum ranked India fifth from the bottom among 49 countries it surveyed. A recent study by the Centre for Media Studies, Delhi, on corruption in urban services reveals that "nearly half of those who avail the services of the most frequently visited public departments of government in the country have had first hand experience of giving bribes at one time or the other". Such is the pervasiveness of the phenomenon that many now dub babudom as the "steal frame".
Not without reason, either. Since 1990, the CVC granted sanction for prosecution against 100 IAS officers. Only one has been convicted by a court of law. To appreciate the exploitation of the system consider this saga: Ram Singh, a 1972 batch IAS officer of the Madhya Pradesh cadre, was convicted by Special Judge P.K. Bhasin for demanding and accepting a bribe of Rs 2 lakh from the representative of a milk cooperative. Singh took the bribe in March 1992 and was convicted only in May 2003. In a sense, Singh is the exception as departments rarely act against or penalise their own kind. The CVC for instance had suggested action against 2,427 officers accused of corruption charges. But chargesheets have been filed only against 460. As of 2000, 11,734 cases against public servants are pending with the disciplinary authorities (administrative ministries) for action.
H.J. Dora, CVC member, reveals that departments pay scant respect to the voice of the CVC. The Department of Personnel is responsible for action but "despite reminders officers continue unpunished and cases are sometimes even closed". Result: officials charged of serious corruption often continue in office and even land plum postings (see interview with the CVC).
Of course, it is not just the IAS or all-India cadre officers who escape punishment. Corrupt Class I officials and those lower in the ranks too have mastered the art of dodging the chargesheet. Even if the chargesheet is filed, babus who know the loopholes in the law manipulate the already overloaded criminal justice system to their advantage. Today over 4,500 cases under the Prevention of Corruption Act are pending in various courts of the country, of which 1,803 have been languishing for over 10 years and many for over two decades.
Interestingly, it is not as if the government is unaware of delays and its causes. In a reply to Rajya Sabha MP P.K. Agarwalla, the then minister for personnel Vasundhara Raje explained the long pendency of cases as the result of a stay on trials by the Supreme Court and high courts, dilatory tactics adopted by the defence, frequent adjournments on the request of defence counsels, large number of documents and witnesses to be examined, non-availability/appearance of witnesses and a heavy work load in courts.
The consequence is that there is no deterrence and, as a senior bureaucrat points out, "pay and proceed" is the norm now in virtually every branch of government and public institution. Bhure Lal, senior IAS officer and author of Corruption: Functional Anarchy in Governance, believes that "the level of corruption is now unprecedented in its magnitude". Lal points out the prevalence of pay and proceed system "has engineered a new class of criminals who are professionals, who facilitate the corrupt and work their way through the system both in institutionalising corruption as also the escape of the accused".
Corruption in babudom has now come to be accepted as part of the steel frame that governs India. Millions are at the receiving end of this phenomenon every day of their lives, every time they come in contact with any arm of the government at any level anywhere in India. Be it getting a copy of a land record, a ration card, a driving licence, electricity connection for a small-scale unit or a defence contract, there is always a price tag: pay up or face delays.
And opportunities are built into the system whether it is in getting a driving licence, a new passport, a ration card or a permit to open a shop or start an industry. Vijay Kalantri, president of the All India Manufacturers' Association, points out that entrepreneurs are required to get 48 different licences to start even a small factory-which, given the lack of transparency, translates into 48 opportunities for babus. Once in business, adds Kalantri, every small- or medium-scale industrialist has to suffer visits from 65 different officials every year. It means the entrepreneur has to satisfy one babu every five days.
But naturally officers are willing to pay to be at the right place, be it a department with an interface with industry or a lucrative revenue posting. This leads to the transfer racket, which is an industry in itself. Typically the babus and politicians who facilitate the postings for the applicants share the premia money, which could be in thousands of rupees for postings of constables to lakhs for higher posts. A posting as tehsildar in the farmhouse-infested outskirts of Delhi, for instance, commands as much as Rs 50 lakh. Income-tax officials, depending on their rank, are known to pay between Rs 5 lakh and Rs 25 lakh for a posting in Mumbai. Ditto with excise and customs officials who prefer regions housing large industries or exporters and pay as much as Rs 30 lakh for a posting.
In fact, even applicants and aspirants are willing to pay not only to get a job but also to get a lucrative job. The scams that rocked the Punjab State Public Service Commission or the Maharashtra State Public Service Commission are but symptoms of a larger racket that is thriving. For these recruits who are willing to pay huge sums, initiation begins on day one. Clearly, those paying the premia are confident of recovery-primarily because of the volume of trade and through the opportunities embedded in regulations and laws.
R.C. Iyer, a senior bureaucrat and the Upa Lokayukta in Maharashtra, says, "Corruption blooms in the system basically due to the large space created by ambiguity-either deliberately or negligently-by babudom. If you wiped out the ambiguity, complaint levels would drop automatically. They say India is a level-playing field but the issue is at what level you play the game." In fact, the Commission on Review of Administrative Laws had suggested that half the Central laws-1,382 of 2,500-be repealed. True to form, babudom has resisted the curtailing of opportunities and only 33 laws have been repealed so far.
It is not just the urban populace that faces the scourge of corruption. In the rural areas it ranges from the munsif to the irrigation engineer to the state electricity board official who can all ruin your harvest. In fact, it is fashionable to say that it is only those who can pay and are willing who are affected by corruption when it is the poor who are hit the worst. The mid-term review of the Ninth Plan points out that the Rs 40,000 crore being spent annually on poverty alleviation is simply not reaching the poorest. In fact, it has suggested that instead of relying on babudom, perhaps the government should simply money order Rs 8,000 every year to the five crore absolutely poor people in the country.
The harsh truth is that despite the recognition of the problem the corrupt have a free run of the system. Sure, there have been efforts to trim the turf of opportunity: introduction of e-kiosks and accountability boards as in east Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh and computerised inter-state check posts in Gujarat. These have dealt a body blow to the earning capacities of the corrupt. But such innovations are almost insignificant when juxtaposed against the burgeoning size of corruption.
On June 4, the CBI secured convictions against three public servants for demanding and accepting bribes from complainants in separate cases. Shyam Sunder Arora, former medical officer, ESI Beawar, Ajmer, had demanded gratification of Rs 1,500 for a favourable report. In the second instance, Murlidhar Prashad, deputy director of the National Savings Organisation, had accepted a bribe of Rs 1,000 for the release of commissions. The third was Sushil Kumar, an official working in the office of the Land Acquisition Collector, Delhi, caught red-handed while accepting a bribe of Rs 500 to release refund vouchers.
In two of the three convictions the babus had taken money just to do their job. What is more frightening is that many in India have simply internalised the phenomenon and are even willing to accept "pay and proceed" as a requirement of the society we live in. Very simply, we are reaching a point of no return. It is upto the political leadership to decide if India is to be a just society or force its citizens to be party to crime.
with Sheela Raval, Ramesh Vinayak, Subhash Mishra, Arun Ram and Rohit Parihar