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Anatomy of Corruption: TIME FOR ZERO TOLERANCE, by Dharmendra Nath, 7 Oct, 2011 Print E-mail

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New Delhi, 7 October 2011

Anatomy of Corruption


By Dharmendra Nath


“Nothing doth hurt me more in state than that cunning men pass for wise”, said Francis Bacon a long time ago. Few will dispute the universality of this statement. These wise men in the government are many times pitted against simple folk who normally leave governance to those whose business it is to govern. Such exceptional situations demand notice. It is essentially a clash between the principals and their agents. The US Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter says ‘In a democracy the highest office is the office of the citizen.’ Citizens are the principals, the others are only agents.


Corruption exists all around us like the elements, earth, air and water. Governments have noticed it only to condemn it and have done precious little by way of performance. Sixty four years of our Independence have led us almost nowhere. If any thing, the problem has only grown. Marj badhata hi gaya jyon jyon dava ki (disease increased whenever  medicine was taken). Can we then blame the citizens (the civil society) or a section of them if they express their anguish over the matter and demand from their rulers who are in fact their agents and representatives that they do something about it quick?


If every one were to come to the table with clean hands then there is no problem. Unfortunately, that is not the case. There is a lot of quibbling, standing on prestige and reluctance to concede any little bit of territory. If the government has a record to show then it should be sharing it with the civil society. On its part the civil society is entitled to know what corruption cases are under the government’s consideration and for how long. What protection is available to the whistle-blower? Are those currently accused taking advantage of any loopholes?


Trust and mutual respect between the government and the civil society are a sin qua non if we are to move out of this log jam. Why is the trust missing? Why we are unable to speak with one voice? Why there is so little synergy? These questions cannot be wished away.


Our society is dissatisfied with the current laissez faire attitude towards corruption. Our airwaves are thick with observations like ‘sab kuch chalata hai’, (everything is permissible) ‘le-de ke nipate’. (sort out by given and take) People know that bribery is informal taxation on top of formal taxation and that it is rewarding unscrupulous elements. They also know that corruption heightens societal contrasts and makes growth with social justice and environmental protection impossible. It widens the gap between the few and the many as is so apparent in our society. Equally apparent is our environmental degradation.


No token words of sympathy or the gesture of breaking bread with the deprived for a day are going to relieve that situation. What is urgently needed is a principled stand against corruption. Somehow there is very little talk of zero tolerance of corruption from responsible quarters. There is no open acceptance of the fact that the existence of corruption is a sign of poor governance. On the other hand there is only regret over the lack of a magic wand.


Corruption goes undetected largely because people want to get on with their lives rather than getting involved with corruption-related hassles. In addition in its more insidious form of collaborative corruption there is a conspiracy of silence which is difficult to break. It is therefore partly like detecting a roof-leakage. From where is it leaking? On the surface every thing is OK. To put it in Chanakya’s words, corruption is as difficult as it is to detect when fish in water are drinking it.


Time was when we had corruption in lesser, more suave and milder forms. Someone neatly categorized its various forms as Nazarana, Shukrana and Jabarana. a gift was more often in kind than in cash. Nazarana i.e good-will creation and Shukrana i.e. thanks giving were purely voluntary. It was only Jabarana i.e. extortion that was looked down upon.


From there we have moved to a full-blown commercialized system of exploitation which is nothing short of monetization of State power. It is extortionist. As widely observed it takes two major forms, transactional and conspiratorial. For every transaction one pays extra. It is mostly found at the lower end of the government.


Permits and licences are a class apart. They are the big game of the Corruption Park. There is a quid pro quo. The authority overlooks and the beneficiary returns the favour. This form of corruption is mostly found at the higher end of the government.


These deals are in mega bucks with a potential to shake up the country. So little detected and yet so widely perceived, this form of corruption has made the expression honest politician a contradiction in terms for large numbers of people.


When detected such deals make newspaper headlines. Variously described as sweetheart deals and kickbacks these represent the most damaging and insidious form of corruption. They involve not just unjust enrichment and tax-evasion (loss of State revenue which could have been spent on some social good) but also bar the most deserving. The society has to make do with less than the best available choice. Their true extent of damage is difficult to quantify. They make a corrupt State a hollow State and a predatory State robbing and impoverishing its citizens in various ways.


Therefore, it is in our collective interest that nothing stands between the accused and his trial except the due process of law supervised by the judiciary and overseen by the legislature. Any political clearance, any scrutiny by any agent outside the detection, investigation and prosecution mechanism is an anathema.


Secondly, since the conspiratorial form of corruption is the trickiest, the most damaging and the most difficult to detect, investigate and prosecute and involves willing cooperation of an agent of the State (and who knows how far his reach goes!) we would be well advised to consider seriously Shri Kaushik Basu’s suggestion that the bribe-giver, if he comes forward, may be treated as a whistle-blower and may even be considered for an approver before the courts.


Let no one mock our anxiety or our efforts. Let no one hide behind the pretext of the lack of a magic wand. In fact, we should not be looking for one. Small steps taken by all of us in the right direction can add up to a lot. As Robert Kennedy said in his address to the University of Capetown a long time ago: “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all these acts will be written the history of this generation”. Instead of working at cross purposes let us do precisely that.--- INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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