Corruption as everyone understands is the abuse of public office for private gain. It is misuse of position by politicians, officials, individuals in the public and private sectors to improperly and unlawfully enrich themselves and/or those close to them.
Now either you can be blasé about corruption, consider it a natural sin and do nothing about it or you can believe as we do that corruption is the very anti-thesis of democracy and therefore needs to be fought and eradicated. In this two part essay we would examine various aspects of this struggle. In the first part, we look at some of the historical experiences of anti corruption measures in India to provide a context to our own attempts in Meghalaya. In the second part we provide some concrete proposals that we believe are necessary to have an effective anti-corruption body.
There are two aspects to any anti corruption struggle. One, which identifies the condition under which corrupt behaviour can function and second, that which looks for means to punish the corrupt. Unlike some recent political pronouncements, Democracy is not just a procedure to elect, in the words of Snowwhite, ‘ki lei san snem’ or gods of five years, but is a system where we, the people are king (sovereign) and the government is merely serving us. Good governance contrary to all manifestoes and thinktankerspeak is not the ability to take quick and effective decisions but how well the servant, that is the government serves it’s sovereign, that is, us. One important way to make our servants be accountable to us is the Right to Information. This right allows us to keep a tab on the actions of our servants. But what happens if we discover that the servant has been abusing our trust by stealing our money. How do we punish them?
Although we have the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 and some specific sections within the Indian Penal Code dealing with behaviour of Public Servants, these laws and provisions are orphaned, because there are no institutions that are solely responsible for its operation. Moreover, large sections of Public service, like elected representatives and top-level bureaucracy are left immune from these laws. This immunity arises because permission has to be sought from these elected representatives and/or the higher bureaucrats to initiate any prosecution. Thus, for punishment of the corrupt, we need a body that is specifically created to locate and prosecute the corrupt. It is instructive therefore to look at two institutions that exist in India to achieve this goal, the Vigilance Commission and office of the Lokayukta (Ombudsman). It may be noted that both these bodies actually predate RTI Act of 2005.
Lokayukta or Ombudusman or its literal and better translation – People’s Commissioner – was one of the earliest offices created in various states of India to specifically look into the issue of corruption. Karnataka was among the first states to have a Lokayukta Act in 1984. This law still continues to be the most progressive version of the law in the country. Other states have also enacted the Lokayukta act, but in the process have diluted the provisions of the Act. In Karnataka for instance, Lokayukta can even investigate allegations of corruption against the Chief Minister. It does not need any prior sanction to file the chargesheet against the public servant. In other states where the office of Lokayukta has been instituted, its reach has been either restricted to only low level bureaucrats and/or its pro-active nature curtailed by forcing it to seek sanction before proceeding to chargesheet. But most importantly, experience shows that Lokayuktas have been only intermittently successful because, governments have compromised the independence of the office by making mostly political appointments to the post of Lokayuktas. Funniest example comes from our own state, where the assembly passed a watered down version of Lokayukta act at least ten years ago, but for the reasons of fear they have managed to enact no rules for it ensuring that the law remains a well-kept administrative secret.
Another example of a body designed to prosecute the corrupt is the Central Vigilance Commision, specially created to look at corruption in administration. It looks into apart from other things, contracts and administrative probity. It also issues guidelines for various government organisations to make their functioning transparent. Although CVC is an independent body, its reach is restricted to the bureaucrats and technocrats but politicians are exempt from its purview. Moreover when it comes to investigation and discovery of corruption, its role remains mostly advisory.
A small toothless version of CVC exists in our state (and others too) called State Vigilance Commission (SVC) headed by the chief secretary. With a serving Chief Secretary heading the SVC, it is logical to expect that the commission can and will do nothing except may be organise Vigilance Week, where some ambiguously worded posters would be fly posted and schoolmarmish oaths administered to the bureaucrats in front of Gandhi’s statue, who, as U. N. Sun sang has turned his back to the powerful sitting inside the secretariat. SVC has no powers to chargesheet, prosecute and pro-actively investigate corruption. It cannot even file an FIR against anyone. Like in the case of the Khyndai Lad Beautification Project, all it did was refer the complaint based on information received under RTI for some anodyne departmental enquiry.
For that matter look at the more than a year long arduous work and journey of the People’s Movement of Sohra’s impressive use of RTI about the ex-Chief Minister Dr. F. A. Khonglam’s misuse of his Local Area Development funds. Inquiry that the administration made based on the PMS’s complaint found corruption and collusion between Dr. and the local development administration. Although, Dr. lost the election miserably, the money he stole has not yet been recovered. He and his collaborating bureaucrats are still roaming free.
These instances have compelled us of the Meghalaya Right to Information Movement to think about and discuss the idea of an independent and strong Anti Corruption Commission with people from across the state for more than a year now and it is encouraging to note that the government has taken pointers from these ideas. For one, our efforts have impacted the current discourses and also, in the ongoing struggle to recover our power as the kings, which is same as a struggle against corruption, RTI has removed corruption from the realm of drawing room gossip and privileged hearsay. By establishing a Right, it has given us an opportunity to puncture the bubble of lies and point out the falsehood of the dominant ruling ideology. By the very fact that it is we the citizens who are uncovering corruption, RTI is creating an active citizenry, a citizenry that resists corruption rather than just curse it. All the non-action on the corrupt till date should therefore not make us tired and cynical.
Now that we have started naming and shaming the thieves, let us start imagining ways to inflict pain on the corrupt. RTI took the ruling class by surprise and now they are looking for ways to subvert citizen’s power. Let us learn from experience and struggle to establish a body, which would be responsible for prosecuting the corrupt and recovering our stolen assets.
Minimum Conditions for an effective Anti Corruption Commission would be:
1. It has to be independent.
2. The selection process of Commissioners has to be transparent and participatory
3. It needs pro-active powers to investigate and chargesheet corruption in all aspects of governance and public life, from Chief Minister to Office Assistant.
4. A Fast track court has to be associated with the commission, which shall have to give timebound judgements. Commission should have its own independent legal team to represent it.
5. It has to be accessible and people friendly like RTI and have a strong relationship to the RTI Act.
In the next part of this essay, we would look at specific provisions to fulfil these minimum conditions, for us to have an effective Anti Corruption Commission.