Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Internalized Colonization and The Muck of Corruption

Right to Information act (RTI) was passed after much fanfare in 2005. The leaders of our 'biggest and most vibrant democracy ' described the passing of this act as a golden moment for the nation. Very true! but should I be proud or ashamed that such a basic right came after sixty years of independence and for sixty years the colonial law of Official Secrets Act (which classifies almost every official data as a national secret) remained in force.

Many such colonial laws, which were designed to benefit the rulers (British then and our noble leaders now), are pervasive in our entire system. It took thirty years of campaigning by Aruna Roy and MKSS to get the RTI. How can we be truly liberated from colonialism? If colonialism served the British interest half a century back, today the colonized India is serving the corrupt ruling class and corporates. How can expect the political class to pass laws which would put fetters to their avarice? On top of it, the Constitution mandates that only the government can introduce laws related to money matters.

Today we see skeletons falling out from every nook and corner of the country. The Commonwealth Games generated a lot of personal wealth. The Aadarsh housing scam proved to be an ideal example of the rot in our system. The 2G spectrum allocation scam has exposed a whole spectrum of corrupt individuals, corporations and politicians. The chief minister of Karnataka, distributes government land to his sons and says that he only followed the precedent of previous governments. The Tatas, the makers of the cheapest car in the world, openly declare that aversion to giving bribes kept them out of the airline industry in India. This is a lot of scum which has come out in the last month. It makes us question the very fundamentals of modern governance systems. Can it be devoid of corruption? Is corruption always bad ?

Corruption comes in two flavors. The one is widely excepted and celebrated in the form of lobbying. This the high level corruption where companies and confederations 'persuade' the government to favorably lend an ear to their arguments and pass laws protecting their interests. The other is low level corruption; widely abhorred and prevalent in India. This corruption, on one hand makes everything unpredictable and every law unimplementable. On the other hand it effectively cancels out the high level corruption. The RTI is an effort to stamp out the the low level corruption which frustrates the government and the corporates alike. Though the RTI has also exposed many scandals at the higher level, the accountability of high ranking officers and politicians is well protected by another colonial law. According to this law, any investigating agency must take permission of the government before persecuting any high ranking official or a minister in the government. One of the variants of this colonial law, the Central Vigilance Commission Act, was passed in 2002. An earnest effort to bring our majestic rulers under the rule of law is the Lokpal Bill. The Lokpal is supposed to be an ombudsman, who can investigate the complaints made against the high functionaries of the government. The fate of this bill has remained undecided since the last forty years.

The only institution which is free from the influence of political class is the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG). The CAG is protected by the Constitution from any influence of the political class. It is also protected by its sterility. The CAG produces voluminous documents about various government departments flouting rules and procedures. The report falls on deaf ears and its time to prepare the next report. This form of transparency with no accountability is very lethal for the system. The transparency ensures that multitudes of scandals come to light sooner or later, the lack of accountability reaffirms the feeling that corruption rules the nation. We badly need a CAG with more teeth and laws which make our rulers accountable for their doings.

It has been often stated that after 1947, today is the time ' when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.' This new turning point in the destiny of our nation requires a herculean effort to draft new laws and put systems in place as was done at the time of drafting our Constitution. Unfortunately, despite the good intentions of a few lawmakers, the parliament remains to be the most inefficient institution. It is more of a political theater full of walk outs, dharnas and disruption of proceedings than a source of laws for our present and future. To complicate matters further is the adamant idealism and lack of pragmatism prevalent in law making, which leads to unimplementable laws.

Take for instance, the right to food debate. The lawmakers aim to provide for a large variety of food grains to all the citizens at throw away prices. This effort to plan to feed more than a billion mouths shall require tremendous resources of the government and the resulting inefficiencies are hard to ignore. This grand plan of the government cannot be more flawed. For one, it would completely push the market mechanism out of the already over interfered agriculture and food sector. Second, it would be replaced by the ever notorious government allocation mechanisms. A pragmatic government should strive to keep within its means and plan for schemes which it can handle well. The problem of food prices and hunger are two different issues. They cannot be solved through one solution.

Instead of the grand Right to Food charade, the government would be better off to provide a legally enforceable freedom from hunger. The government should leave the task of providing citizens with day to day food articles to the free market and should strive to build a system on which a person can reliably fall back on to save himself from starvation. This system can be very limited and hence efficient. Instead of providing which an array of food grains and other perishables, the government should distribute processed food (which would have all the necessary nutrients, long shelf life, easy to store and transport, and hard to filch and sell in the market or make any derivatives ). The cost and scale of such an operation would be far more manageable. Analogously, thank God, the government is not thinking of Right to Employment act and take on the charge of providing everyone with a daily livelihood. It is the task of the entrepreneurs and private industries. It would do well to provide for some assistance to the unemployed.

We need to have a perpetual institution under the aegis of the parliament, which studies the laws of modern democracies all over the world and comes up with innovative ideas in the form of legislations to deepen our democracy and the rule of law. Such an institution shall have no fetters in terms of introducing such bills in the parliament, obtaining data to frame these bills and to hold open consultations on these bills. Such an institution cannot usurp the right of the parliament to frame laws of the land. It can certainly push the parties to openly take stand for or against any bill which aims to better our democracy.

We also need to expand the powers and responsibilities of CAG. It should not merely perform postmortems on the deeds of the government but should also take an active role in formulating and enforcing proper procedures and guidelines for the government to reduce inefficiency and corruption. Every law, should undergo a cost analysis before being passed in terms of monitoring the implementation of such a law. Accordingly, money should be set aside for the CAG to ensure the monitoring of its implementation.

Finally, technology can be a big savior when it comes to the evils of corruption. A recent report by McKinsey states that India can save 1 lakh crore rupees every year by making every government payment electronic and hence reducing corruption.