India does not need a revolution or other radical measures to subdue the monster of corruption. Even marginal changes to the existing laws can unleash lasting improvements to governance.

The recent expose of massive corruption in government has made people wonder whether crookedness is a typical Indian trait. The national mood is sullen, cynical and despondent. Are Indians are incorrigibly venal? Is dishonesty embedded in our DNA? Are our brains wired to corruption?

The all-pervasive despair is unwarranted. India is not destined to live with corruption. Indian politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats are only as honest or crooked as their counterparts across the world, including the West.

Why then is corruption rampant in India? The hullabaloo over the recent scams has diverted public attention from the causes of corruption. Let us examine one of the little talked about causes — the complexity of our laws.

Law-making is still being held hostage to the colonial mindset of command and control. Indian laws are typically known for their complexity, obtuseness and ambiguity. Lack of clarity and transparency makes our laws fertile breeding grounds for corruption because the bureaucracy has arrogated to itself the powers to interpret laws at their discretion.

It will not be an exaggeration to say that it is virtually impossible to be entirely honest to survive in business or access services from the government. We enact tough laws which everybody knows are difficult to observe in letter and in spirit.

Anybody setting up a new business or factory has to comply with a plethora of statutory requirements. It is not argued here that regulations are bad. But the rules should not be so unrealistically stringent as to make compliance impossible. It appears that the purpose of regulation is not to enforce responsible behaviour among people and protect society but to provide an avenue for corrupt officials to make easy money. It seems that strict laws are made not be observed but to be paid lip service with the connivance of corrupt officials. For instance, many cracker units are allowed to function in unsafe conditions. There is no dearth of laws to regulate these units. But who cares whether these units comply with the laws so long as money changes hands.

The statute book is littered with obsolete laws which have outlived their utility. They are allowed to continue only as a source of corruption. Road contractors have to bid at low rates because the official rates are not periodically revised in accordance with inflation. The contractor tries to make a profit by tampering with the quality and quantity of materials. All these are done with the connivance of officials.

Sometimes, absence of any law helps corrupt politicians enrich themselves at the expense of the exchequer. The absence of a transparent policy for allocating spectrum and coal blocks led to a massive loss of revenue for the government.

Drafting of laws often involves subterfuge. For instance, people with criminal backgrounds are able to contest elections and enter legislative bodies because the law states that they must have been convicted to be prevented from entering the fray. This provision has been deliberately inserted with the knowledge that criminal trials normally take a decade or two to be completed. The ostensible justification for this ridiculous law is that frivolous litigation could be used to prevent politicians from contesting. The law could have stated that any criminal case pending for more than say six years would trigger disqualification.

Our State governments continue with the old paper-based administration, leading to opaqueness in the functioning of departments. The success of the passenger reservation system of the Railways is testimony to the fact that electronic interface between the public and the government is a sure recipe for reducing corruption.

All routine decisions except those relating to national security should be put on websites on a real-time basis. A shift to total e-governance is long overdue.

India does not need a revolution or other radical measures to subdue the monster of corruption. Even marginal changes to the existing laws can catalyse and unleash lasting improvements to governance. The numerous reports of the Law Commission and the Administrative Reforms Commission gathering dust in the corridors of power should be retrieved, re-examined and their well-intentioned recommendations implemented.

The challenge before the people is how to make the political class realise that the old order must change yielding place to the new.

(The writer’s email is vnmukund@gmail.com)

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