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05 May, 2015

Half-hearted anti-graft measures

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The largest single factor that contributed to the resounding defeat of the 10-year-old Congress-led government in last year’s parliamentary elections was the corruption scandals that engulfed it. Some Congress party leaders and a former minister belonging to coalition partner Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam were facing criminal charges when the country went to the polls.

A Gandhian movement led by Anna Hazare and backed by civil society groups raised the issue of corruption high up in the national agenda, and Narendra Modi, as Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, cashed it in his vigorous election campaign.

Last week, nearly a year later, the Modi government announced a set of proposals to tackle the issue of corruption. It provides for enhancement of the minimum term of imprisonment for corruption from six months to three years and the maximum term from five years to seven years.

The higher penalties will raise corruption to the level of a heinous crime. However, some of the proposed changes may render the legal framework weaker than at present. For instance, there is a proposal to extend the protective umbrella of prior sanction for prosecution of public servants to those who have retired or resigned.

Under the Prevention of Corruption Act 1988, a public servant is guilty of criminal misconduct and liable for punishment if “he while holding office obtains for any person any valuable thing or pecuniary advantage without any public interest.” Bureaucrats have long been unhappy that this provision as it renders them liable for action even when they have not derived any pecuniary benefit from their actions. One of the contemplated changes seeks to vest the power to grant prior sanction for investigation in such cases in the Lokpal or Lok Ayukta instead of the government.

On an average, trial proceedings in a case under the Prevention of Corruption Act last more than eight years. The government plans to fix a two-year time-frame for completing the proceedings. The cumbersome legal procedures and dilatory tactics employed by either of the parties involved may defeat the objective.

In the Transparency International’s global corruption index, India ranked 85th among the 175 countries surveyed last year. The authorities were pleased with the finding as the previous year the country was in the 94th position.

The licence raj which flourished under the restrictive economic policy which the country followed in the early years of Independence was widely believed to have bred corruption at the political and administrative levels. The 2G scam case in which the former DMK minister and several high-ranking bureaucrats are involved indicates that under economic liberalisation the situation has become worse. Not better.

Under the law, the bribe-giver and the bribe-taker are both liable for prosecution. A company official who bribes a bureaucrat can be prosecuted but not the company on whose behalf he makes the payment. An amendment under consideration envisages prosecution of the company as well.

Corruption takes place at the lower levels as well as the higher levels of the administration. At the lower levels, it takes the form of demanding or accepting illegal gratification to provide services which officials are bound to provide anyway. This hurts the poor. At the higher levels, it takes the form of payment of consideration for doing a favour. This benefits the rich.

When prosecution is rare and conviction even rarer, enhancement of punishment is an exercise with little practical significance. Except in rare instances like the 2G case, which, incidentally, was the result of exertions by constitutional functionaries like the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Supreme Court, only small fry are caught in the net.

Corruption is an affliction that affects many sectors. Studies have identified defence sector companies, all of which are government-owned, and the health care system, which is dominated by the private sector, as areas where ethical practices are extremely weak. 

The proposed changes are, at best, half-hearted measures. They cannot make any material difference since they do not address the core issue of political corruption, arising from the parties’ growing need for funds to fight elections. On the face of it, the BJP, which is now the main beneficiary of corporate munificence, and Narendra Modi, who used a business tycoon’s private aircraft for campaign tours and accepted a custom-made suit reportedly worth Rs 1 million presented by a businessman, are unlikely agents of change in this crucial area. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, May 5, 2015.

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