KILL BILL ? NOT REALLY!
By Sanjay Jha
( How could they miss the “ public sector”, albeit it may come under the Prevention of Corruption Act ? Why does the JLP want to entrap the poor salmon’s first while the Big White sharks are quietly let loose? And shouldn’t the Lok Pal be implemented in a phased manner ?).
Everyone carried a dismal hang-dog expression. It was as if we were at the receiving end of a devastating Armageddon. As if India’s credit rating was being correctly calculated to be of the lowest default grade by Standard & Poor. As oppressive dark clouds gathered, insanity ballooned as if imitating the Bollywood parody Peepli Live, virtually paralyzing our thriving democratic institutions. Frenzied media coverage, Bollywood drop-outs resurrecting themselves with rehearsed vehemence , sadhus/swamis/sevaks serenading an organized crowd cheering in boisterous revelry , even rumoredly snake-charmers spinning their reptiles, it was truly the theatre of the absurd. Or the concert for the confused. Amidst them sat a 74 year old man who despite fasting for over ten days to force an anti-corruption legislation packed a pugilistic punch. Team Anna Hazare wanted immediate implementation of their Jan Lok Pal Bill, dialogue, discussion and debate be damned. A single-bullet remedy for our woeful underhand ways was their perceived panacea. . It was bizarre. Democracy had scrapped an abysmal low. Amidst the madness, everyone forgot, that barring negotiable technical points, it was definitely a historical anti-corruption legislation being vigorously pursued by the government itself. But by then objectivity had flown quietly out of the window.
The real purpose behind that great reality TV carnival, however, never took center-stage. No one discussed what the stumbling bottlenecks were; confabulations remained at the pedestrian level. Irrational obstinacy overtook core common-sense. Clearly, there was this desperate intent to take credit for the landmark Lok Pal bill by Team Anna, hence pressure tactics and ridiculously exacting deadlines. It also made for entertainment for many.
It is an excruciatingly challenging exercise to review the various Bills in a short synopsis , but my principal belief is preventing corruption before it takes place is a better alternative to policing them post-the damage done. .
1) Lok Pal should not be levying jail sentences or imposing fines ; its operating bandwidth should be restricted to investigation and prosecution only. The quantum of punishment must be handled by a parallel judicial body or special courts designated for the purpose. India cannot risk a dictatorial structure, unshackled by parliamentary oversight where the writ of the Lok Pal is unchallenged. . Hence, the constitutional status to Lok Pal as suggested by Congress MP Rahul Gandhi needs serious concurrent assessment for future amendment, irrespective of the Bill being passed in the coming months.
2) The independence of the judiciary is a sacrosanct pillar for an effective democracy. For all it’s recent problems, we need to preserve its consecrated character. Nothing in life needs to be on an irreversible downhill slide. The Judicial Accountability and Standards Bill ought to address several issues ( currently approved by the Standing Committee). The Lok Pal should have no jurisdiction over the judiciary’s functioning. In fact, the Lok Pal must be investigated for its own misbehavior and financial impropriety by the Supreme Court. In effect, the Supreme Court and the judiciary must retain its independence.
3) Grievance-handling mechanism is like a mammoth customer service operation, driven by innumerable transactions. Ration cards, pension payments, passport renewals etc require administrative reforms rather than a super infrastructure of surreptitious policing ;instead we need to simplify processes and improve efficiencies which makes a massive Inspector Raj redundant. Two classic examples where modern technology has dramatically increased public service standards is Income-Tax e-filing, and railway reservations. Automation’s impact on transparency is immediate. When people fail, you make systemic changes to improve performance. Anxiety-enhancement boomerangs, and can be terribly demoralizing. UID which is now being initiated will make cash transfers seamless, obliterating corruption in one swift stroke. Aruna Roy’s suggestion for a separate mechanism for handling commonplace citizen complaints makes good sense.
4) One of the best ways of reducing corruption amongst civil servants would be to rationalize productivity norms through better staff recruitment and management ; for instance, over a defined five-year plan period, gradually reduce the staff size by 50% and increase their salaries by 100%. It will be an onerous task for the Lok Pal to manage the massive-numbers at the lower level of civil servants. It is again recommended that to ensure effective results this category should be part of Phase II. “Spectacular corruption” always happens at the top of the pyramid ( senior Class A category) and this focus will reduce gigantic frauds. Hence, the Lok Pal Bill has serious merit here, contrary to popular public discourse. I suggest implement the Lok Pal in a three-phased plan, with the top of the pyramid being the first priority.
The problem with the Jan Lok Pal bill is it’s obsession with concentrated power, not the supremacy of transparency. The fundamental approach is flawed; it assumes that the solution to corruption lies in creating a fear-inspiring intimidating machinery. The answer actually lies in less red tape, better training, rigorous transparency and human resource engagement . We need to empower the low-level civil servants for the long-term, not the Lok Pal.
5) The CBI must continue to come under the Ministry of Home Affairs but alternatively it could be brought under the RTI Act, but be completely independent of the Lok Pal.
6) Asset stripping, planned destruction of business potential to suit rival private sector beneficiaries and under-hand dealing of public sector undertakings ( PSU’s) has been completely overlooked. The tragic demise of Air India, the under-performing ITDC hotels, VSNL sell-off, step-motherly treatment to BSNL are classic examples. PSU’s possess massive infrastructure/land/technology/funds that can be stealthily swindled. This must be brought under the Lok Pal. The Non-Performing Assets of PSU banks are a staggering size , mostly generous loans to unscrupulous corporates, which are finally a drain on the public exchequer. How come the great proponents of Jan Lok Pal Bill forgot such a basic item? The explanation that PSU’s come under the PCA is not reassuring, as PSU’s run on for a profit model, with several being publicly listed and possessing huge market capitalization. Perhaps they require a different kind of supervisory control.
7) We receive over USD 2.5 billion in foreign funds inflow into NGO’s on an annual basis. Not all of them are paragons of virtue. This needs to be tightly regulated, given the rampaging corruption levels prevalent. All NGO’s , including those privately-funded need to be compulsorily registered and must come under the purview of the Lok Pal.
8) It is important to provide legal recourse to those bureaucrats alleged to be corrupt as they get a permanent stigma, and it hampers their future career prospects, even if ultimately absolved. To ensure that, we should minimize frivolous complaints by imposing a fine of Rs 100,000/- and 3 months imprisonment. But a lot needs to be done to improve the protection of whistleblowers ; a separate bill as envisaged by Aruna Roy seems a credible option.
9) The Prime Minister is India’s real supreme authority who takes critical decisions in times of grave internal disturbances and external aggressions. Bringing him under the Lok Pal will enormously reduce his political stature, with the latter seen as his Big Brother. In any case, a corrupt PM can be tried under the Prevention of Corruption Act . The Lok Pal Bill has an apposite solution; let the Lok Pal investigate the PM after he demits office, which he would have to if prima facie evidence is found against him. The definition of “ corruption” as many have suggested, can be widened to include various forms of kickback.
10) MP’s must declare their ownership in equity shares/ presence of close relatives on Boards of companies and any other “direct/indirect interest” through financial engagement . If found to be lobbying ( as was seen in the Radia tapes) they should be immediately suspended pending final investigations. This could come under the Lok Pal.
11) The Selection Committee should have a maximum of 7 people: 3 from the ruling establishment, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court , a retired Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Leader of Opposition and an eminent citizen . The Search Committee could be appointed by the Selection Committee as recommended in the Lok Pal Bill.
12) The idea of having a Lok Ayukta in every state as recommended in the Jan Lok Pal, a similar structure at a different scale for states makes sound sense. But what about the Lok Ayukta’s already in existence?
13)) Tapping of phones: This sensitive power must remain with the Home Ministry and not with the Lok Pal which should maintain a detailed document if required in court of law to explain reasons for authorization of phone tapping.
14) As Raghuram Rajan writes in his celebrated book Fault Lines; “ proximity to the government is an enormous source of profitability in India , and is reflected in the huge disparities of wealth that are emerging. Land, natural resources, and government contracts or licenses—are the predominant sources of wealth for India’s billionaires”. All large corporations acquiring “ public assets” such as land, water, mines, oil reserves, forests, and those in public-private partnerships must be brought under the Lok Pal. The corporate sector has so far dodged public scrutiny using sophisticated subterfuge, corporate lobbying, accounting jugglery and PR. We need to create a level-playing field. Also, these corporate entities must come under the RTI Act. The violating companies must be barred from raising funds from public for equity/debt/loans and financial institutions for a period of 10 years besides facing criminal and pecuniary liabilities.
15) In government departments/ PSU’s what we need to do is to scrap the age-old tender contract system with a more transparent electronic RFP with a built-in-ROI model that measures not just cost savings, but the qualitative aspects of a vendor’s proposals. This will ensure transparency, and minimize corruption.
I believe the orchestrated effort to paint the government-sponsored Lok Pal Bill ersatz was a tactical strategy to keep the hoi polloi confounded. A hyperventilating media was overtly captious , carping away at everything the GOI said , even as Anna’s team led a multimedia sock and awe operation. It took a gutsy grass-roots politician like Sharad Yadav to finally call a spade a spade.
I have a fundamental problem with the sweeping generalization of Jan Lok Pal Bill that corruption rages only in the government sector. And all public servants are egregiously debauched. And instead of focusing on large-scale corruption of Big Business-politics nexus where the real moolah changes hands, the Bill only chased small change . Misplaced priorities, perhaps! The priority here should be those at the peak of the pyramid, and not the ones carrying those sand-buckets. .