Simplifying complex rules and regulations, making the decision-making process transparent, and giving the government a limited role will minimise opportunities for the corrupt

It is not surprising that corruption took centre stage during the election campaign. In a recent poll, 96 per cent of Indians said corruption was holding their country back; 92 per cent thought it had worsened in the past five years. Most Indians have come to believe that the law for the common man does not apply to politicians and the influential.

In this context, all political parties seem to have coalesced around the appointment of a Lokpal, as if it were the single magic bullet to conquer corruption. Anna Hazare, who can be credited for pushing the idea, has listed the appointment of “a strong and independent Lokpal at the Centre and Lokayukta in all States to weed out corruption” as one of his demands from the new government. The Aam Aadmi Party, though irresponsible in many ways, deserves credit for having roused people to protest against corruption. Indeed, both the losing Congress Party and the winning Bharatiya Janata Party had no option but to embrace this agenda and support a Bill for the purpose. Strong public opinion in favour of the Lokpal means that the Bill can be expected to be passed soon.

Institutions of governance

The Lokpal initiative will by itself not conquer corruption. India already has a number of institutions of governance that have the mandate and the ability to deal with corruption. This list includes the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Central Vigilance Commission, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, courts, information commissions, and Lokayuktas at the State level. These established institutions have not been able to make a dent in corruption.

So why should the Lokpal fare any differently? Why would just another agency or person with powers to investigate and prosecute be more effective than all these institutions combined? Why would the same vested interests that successfully thwarted the efforts of these institutions not be able to do the same with the Lokpal?

The answer is that all these institutions attack those visibly corrupt, but not the three root drivers of corruption.

Complex rules and regulations that burden citizens and that are difficult or even impossible to comply with is the first driver. These provide fertile ground for corruption and also encourage the use of nefarious means to fix problems — contacts, bribes, etc. Simplifying these rules, making decision-making processes transparent and giving the government a limited role will minimise opportunities for the corrupt.

This can be done using information technology. Unfortunately, while some areas of this have been successfully covered, most areas have not. The Narendra Modi-led government must accelerate the use of e-services.

Second, as the saying goes: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. In India we have given enormous power to public officials at different levels. This, in their minds, reinforces their role as rulers rather than public servants. These powers combined with the insatiable demands of corrupt political leaders and complex laws and regulations provide them ample opportunities to make personal gains in return for unethical favours.

This intolerable situation has to change. Fortunately, the Modi government has taken the bull by its horns by selecting public servants with a relatively clean past to occupy several top positions. The Prime Minister has also galvanised officials into taking quick decisions without fear or favour. Such an ethos will trickle down to lower levels where most interactions with citizens take place. However, the government must also protect honest officials from the risk of harassment by overzealous investigative agencies. The Lokpal should not become such an agency.

Ensuring accountability

Third, the more distant the government is from citizens, the more difficult it is to hold the former accountable. Contrary to the intent of our founding fathers, India continues to have a highly centralised form of government. Local governments and institutions enjoy virtually no autonomy of action. Neither the election process nor the grievance system has successfully addressed this problem.

Bringing decision-making closer to citizens (electronically or physically) and balancing it with adequate empowerment of individuals and community groups to hold decision-makers accountable is the answer. The roles and activities of central, State, local and community institutions need to be rebalanced. Only strong national leadership can make this happen.

What is needed is a limited and focussed government, decentralisation of powers to local governments and communities, greater transparency, more right to information and empowerment of citizens and citizen groups. Most importantly, good leadership that is willing to subject itself to public scrutiny will set a good example.

It is not enough if the Modi government establishes the Lokpal. It should address the issues based on which people are demanding a Lokpal. Merely adding to the strength of investigative agencies will increase the size of the government but not necessarily improve governance. The slogan adopted by the Prime Minister and his party, “less government and more governance”, is on the mark.

(J. Shivakumar and Inder Sud are international consultants who served as Directors in the World Bank.)

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