Corruption in India is perceived to be endemic and is increasingly attracting international attention with magazines like The Economist publishing leading articles. It is not as if there has been no government machinery to tackle this menace, but whatever efforts made have been half-hearted and tardy. The elaborate institutions of Vigilance Commissions and their hoards of field officers called Central Vigilance Officers and the prescription of punctilious procedures and rule books have not obviously helped. It is a matter of shame and regret that the government and its watchdog, the Central Vigilance Commission, ignored deliberately or otherwise internationally available contractual models to ensure integrity in government procurement or in the grant of licences, and are reaping the consequences in the form of 2G and CWG scams.
There can be many reasons for such abysmal failure, but chief among them must be the total lack of sincerity both at institutional level and at the level of officers manning the institutions in follow-up of the best practices in the world. Recognising that the largest incidence of corruption occurs in the interface of the government department with the private supplier of goods and services to the government, the TI (Transparency International) — a global civil society — advocated incorporation of an Integrity Pact (IP) to bring about a binding agreement to eschew corruption in the fulfilment of specific contracts.
Although the idea was mooted in the 1990s, by mid-2000s it was picked by countries with diverse ideologies such as Argentina, Colombia, Italy, Korea, Mexico and even Pakistan. However, it was only after 2006 or so that the Central Vigilance Commission lackadaisically woke up to the possibility of adopting the IP route in Central government public sector undertakings. In 2007, SAIL drew up the first model draft of IP, vetted by the Solicitor-General to be followed in its procurement contracts. In 2008, the Defence Minister announced that signing an IP would be an essential prerequisite in defence procurement.
Essentially, the IP is an agreement between a government agency and all bidders for a government or public sector contract where mutual rights and obligations are established so that neither side will pay or offer bribes, collude with competitors to obtain contracts or engage in such abuses while carrying them out.
A major feature of the IP is the role of Independent External Monitors (IEMs), who act under the umbrella of civil society to ensure compliance with commitments by all the parties. In India, the CVC selects from among persons with records of impeccable integrity and recommends for appointment as IEMs for various departments and PSUs.
All the organisations which adopt the IP are required to appoint IEMs for objectively examining complaints, if any, pertaining to the tenders where the IP is applicable. While tendering, the government department or PSU is to indicate the name of the IEM in bid documents. Either of the parties to the pact can report suspected violations to the IEMs.
I am afraid it will be decades before any improvement in doing away with corruption in public contracts is seen through the IP and the functioning of IEMs, going by my own experience. On a fine afternoon in late 2008, I received a letter from the OFB (Ordnance Factories Board), a Department of the Ministry of Defence, appointing me IEM in the public contracting sphere of the OFB from which I retired as Chairman and Director-General of Ordnance Factories. I was pleasantly surprised but also felt flattered that my appointment was issued with the approval of the CVC.
Try I did, but I never got any clarification on what my role precisely was, whether there would be any meetings to draw up some scheduled tasks and what kind of data would be furnished to the IEM, etc. My letters addressed to all the authorities, i.e., the CVC; the Secretary, Defence Production; the Chairman, OFB; and the CVO, OFB, were never replied to. I was also not made aware if contracts entered into by the OFB Chairman or his officers had the IP and the names of IEM incorporated in the contracts.
Since it was enjoined on me to act on complaints, I reacted to a letter pseudonymously received by me in August 2010 by drawing attention to the salient points which needed further investigation. To this, too, I did not receive a reply for a long time. After a long wait, I was informed by a Desk Officer of the CVC (the CVC must have been too busy occupying a constitutional post to condescend to reply to a mere IEM) that the letter was filed without explaining why. After such disdainful treatment, I thought it was a cruel joke being played by the CVC, who treating the IEMs as greenhorns wanted them to attend courses on procurement, instead of a seminar, as one would expect, for disseminating the basic idea behind the whole concept as IP and the challenges before IEMs to tackle corruption in public procurement.
Apart from being a qualified engineer with field experience in manufacturing plants, I, in my 36 years of experience, had maximum hands-on experience in drafting tender documents and negotiating contracts for huge explosives projects and large machine tools for engineering and metallurgical projects, apart from purchase contracts for all types of raw materials, sub- assemblies, systems and integration. To wit, the only other occasion the OFB made contact with me was through its CVO requesting me to deliver a lecture during the Vigilance Week.
I cannot escape the feeling that the government is neither earnest nor sincere in utilising the available tools in this endeavour but is always ready with creating structures and forms disingenuously to impress the Indian civil society and the international community to show that it is doing something. My experience cannot be brushed aside as a one-off aberration, but is symptomatic of the deep malaise afflicting the government as a whole even as it is overwhelmed by a serial exposure of humongous scandals in the matter of government contracts.
To conclude, unless the government and its vigilance commissioners demonstrably take steps to achieve tangible results in minimising corruption and measurably increase public probity, creating institutions like IEMs would be a travesty of purpose and a waste of public funds.
(The writer is a former Chairman of the Ordnance Factories Board and Director-General of Ordnance Factories)
It is a matter of shame that the government and the CVC ignored internationally available contractual models to ensure integrity in government procurement or in grant of licences.