Corruption begets Corruption
The history of the last 60 years in India would show that we were never serious about tackling the menace of corruption. World Bank studies show that annually, Indians spend about Rs 21,000 crores for greasing palms of officials to get services that they are entitled to. One of the earliest corruption scandals to hit India was the Jeep scandal in 1948, when jeeps needed by the army for the Kashmir operation were purchased without following rules. Though an Inquiry Committee which went into the scandal suggested a judicial inquiry, backed by the opposition, the government announced in September 1955 that it has decided to close the matter and that if the opposition were not satisfied, they could make it an election issue!
The man at the centre of the scandal, V.K. Krishna Menon, was thereafter inducted as a minister without portfolio in Nehru’s cabinet. There were other corruption scandals during Nehru’s time, and finally a Committee was appointed under eminent parliamentarian, Santhanam, to study corruption. In its report, the Santhanam Committee observed that ‘there is widespread impression that failure of integrity is not uncommon among ministers and that some ministers, who have held office during the last 16 years have enriched themselves illegitimately, obtained good jobs for their sons and relations through nepotism and have reaped other advantages inconsistent with any notion of purity in public life’.
The anti-corruption infrastructure that we have today, consisting of the Central Vigilance Commission, the Central Bureau of Investigation, and vigilance departments in various central ministries and the state anti-corruption bureaus, is a result of the recommendations of the Santhanam Committee. An anti-corruption law was already in place since 1947, the Prevention of Corruption Act. Provisions were made for Special Courts to try offences under the Act considering the seriousness of the offence, so that speedy justice could be given.
The Administrative Reforms Commission set up in the mid-Sixties, had similarly recommended creation of the Lok Pal and Lok Ayukta, at the centre and in the states respectively to check corruption at the apex levels in government. The Lokpal Bill was introduced for the first time in 1968 but it lapsed with the dissolution of the Lok Sabha. It was introduced seven more times in Parliament, the last time in 2001. However, the Bill lapsed each time except in1985 when it was withdrawn. A few states have set up the Lok Ayukta, but there is no uniformity in their functioning and except in Karnataka, the Lok Ayuktas are toothless organisations. This would perhaps show the lack of seriousness in the attitude of the political establishment to the issue of corruption.
The question is whether these anti-corruption set-ups were able to check corruption. No study was done to check corruption levels in governments in the states or at the centre. The Anti-Corruption Act was further strengthened in 1988, with the amended Prevention of Corruption Act, but a plethora of corruption scandals hit the headlines in the Nineties, like the banking scam, the urea scam, and the Jain diaries scam and so on. The Vineet Narain case in the Supreme Court led to the Apex Court laying down guidelines to strengthen the Central Bureau of Investigation, with the director getting two year tenure, and with the CVC having a role in the selection of senior officers from the level of the superintendent of Police to that of the director, CBI. Though the guidelines envisage a role for the CVC in the supervision of the CBI for anti-corruption matters, practically, supervision of investigation of cases is in accordance with the instructions in the CBI Crime Manual, done at different levels within the CBI’s hierarchy.
According to the United Nations, corruption was the chief reason why the poor nations continued to remain in poverty. World Bank’s studies would show that corruption ‘…was the single greatest obstacle to economic and social development’. According to the World Bank study ‘….countries that tackle corruption and improve their rule of law can increase their national incomes by as much as four times in the long term and child mortality can fall by as much as 75 per cent’. These studies finally led to the United Nations’ Convention on Corruption. One of the most important provisions of this Convention is the recovery of stolen assets i.e., assets stolen through corrupt and illegal practices and parked in tax havens. Nigeria has recovered over USD 700 million worth of assets stolen by one of its corrupt leaders. Similarly, the Philippines succeeded in recovering about USD 600 million worth of assets stacked in tax havens by a corrupt leader. The United States has, in the last 15 years, recovered over USD six billion worth of assets. Though the UN Convention against Corruption came into effect in October 2003, it was only recently that India ratified the convention, after a lot of dilly-dallying.
The latest corruption scams to hit the headlines started with the 2G scam, and continued with the Commonwealth Games scam and the Adarsh housing scam. A general feeling of anger gripped the nation with the exposure of these scams and with the arrest of ministers and members of parliament connected with the scams. The Nira Radia tapes were yet another blow to the image of India, with indications of nexus between bureaucrats, politicians, corporate honchos and media icons. Did we not have laws to investigate these scams? Of course we had, and we also had the investigating agencies to investigate and prosecute these cases. What we lacked was the political will to tackle corruption at the top.
Our investigating agencies take up such cases only when the Supreme Court goes after them with a stick. They have the legal authority to register and the expertise to investigate such scams. But action is averted, unless they get the green signal from the government, or the direction from Constitutional Courts to probe the scams. Section 6A was added to the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act in 2003 by which the CBI needs to take permission of the central government to investigate corruption cases against officers of the level of joint secretaries and above. With such curbs on the powers of the anti-corruption agency, there can hardly be any significant fight against corruption in the country.
Investigation of corruption cases, especially those pertaining to amassing wealth disproportionate to known sources of income and of abuse of official position with dishonest intention; takes more time than ordinary cases. Collection of evidence of collusion between the bribe-giver and bribe-taker is not easy, as both of them have benefitted from this illegal transaction, and would not speak against each other. In the majority of corruption cases, accused are influential and are able to command the best legal brains to assist them in courts. Even during investigation of cases, their lawyers try to stall proceedings through stays, and other interlocutory petitions, resulting in delays. Trials of corruption cases get bogged down in courts on various grounds. Thus investigation and trial of corruption cases, especially involving high profile politicians or bureaucrats or business leaders take years. A court verdict is not final. There are appeals in the high court and then the Supreme Court. All in all, a case would take about 15 to 20 years to reach finalisation. No wonder the corrupt think corruption pays in India!
No study has yet been done to see the cost benefit analysis of having invested thousands of crore by the nation on the anti-corruption infrastructure, and the returns produced by the anti-corruption set-up in the form of convictions and attachment of ill-gotten wealth.
The greatest contribution of Anna Hazare is the awakening he has caused in the general masses in India not to tolerate corruption. If this awakening is sustained for a long period, there is bound to be an impact on all political parties that it will no longer be business as usual. If the Lok Pal Act is able to tackle corruption at the highest levels, without having to take prior permission as envisaged in Section 6A of the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act, or having to wait for prosecution sanction, as required under section 19 of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, it would be a great advance on the current set-up. If the Lok Pal Act can ensure that the trial of every case is completed within a specific period, say of one year, it would be a great advance on the current set-up. The law does not distinguish between ministers and clerks. It is the same for all.
In Kerala, former chief minister the late K. Karunakaran, heads the list of the accused in the infamous Palmolein case. A former minister, Balakrishna Pillai landed in jail after exhausting all legal remedies through appeals, in a corruption case. The law is not weak. We should have a system in which the implementing authority is not controlled by the executive and weakened. The fast launched by Anna Hazare for acceptance of his Jan Lok Pal Bill is certainly not the way to get a law enacted. There is, as we know, a set procedure in Parliament for this purpose. But the fact remains that if it was not for the movement against corruption started by this simple Gandhian, the Lok Pal Bill may never have seen the light of day. The nation is watching the unfolding developments.
(The writer retired as the first chief of NIA. Earlier he was the additional director general of police, Jammu and Kashmir. He was also Vigilance Commissioner in Jammu & Kashmir)