After the floods, Bengaluru needs to clean up its act
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Everybody has a favourite villain to blame, yet the herd of restive elephants in the room is led by a particularly malevolent matriarch — corruption

September 30, 2022 12:16 am | Updated 11:25 am IST

As far as the eye can see... and more

As far as the eye can see... and more | Photo Credit: K. MURALI KUMAR

The floods have abated in Bengaluru. As individuals struggle to clean their houses, the silt on the roads left behind by the receding water — now a fine dust that flies in the air choking us — is a reminder of those difficult times.

Various analyses now attribute Bengaluru’s flooding to more rainfall — in the future, it is expected to increase to an average of 1,000 mm per annum from the current 650 mm per annum — and unplanned, overcrowded growth that is destroying the greenery, tanks and wetlands.

Clearly, we must decongest the city, plant more trees, save wetlands, even reclaim them, desilt drains, enlarge sewers, deconcretise pavements and stop the clogging of waterways with unsegregated garbage. The State government announced tough measures such as the demolition of unauthorised encroachments impeding drainage streams in the city, but quickly backed away. It now plans to divert drains to avoid already built-up areas. This is not a solution because nature will carry on inundating encroachments until people abandon them of their own volition.

The ‘grease’ of the system

Everybody has a favourite villain to blame — from the builder mafia to the migrant, from the lack of spatial planning to uncontrolled violations of building bye-laws. Yet, the herd of restive elephants in the room is led by a particularly malevolent matriarch: corruption.

Everybody decries corruption outwardly, but submits to it meekly. Fear apart, it is also a matter of convenience, of time saved and of benefits, often through the violation of rules. Some justify corruption as the grease that keeps the fast-growing economic engine of Bengaluru whirring smoothly. However, corruption cripples economic growth in ways not readily apparent. Apart from transferring inordinate wealth to the undeserving, it creates a slew of vested interests, who resist anti-corruption process reforms. Understanding how corrupt officials, politicians, regulators and private players act in concert is essential to successfully implementing corruption-reducing strategies. Further, we must understand that the corrupt often use the honest to further their subversive agendas. Examples abound.

Most game theories concerning the dynamics of corruption reveal that the original sinner is often, paradoxically, a well-intentioned government. A good, but misguided government could make narrowly rigid rules, thus giving venal politicians and bureaucrats the leeway to bend them. For example, building bye-laws are so labyrinthine that the strictest law-abiding citizen cannot comply with them. That provides opportunities for agents who bypass the system’s rigidities. Ironically then, corruption actually reduces red tape. Hence, not many complain about resorting to bribing to get work done through a parallel, ‘efficient’ system.

One could also have a good government that aims to reduce red tape, making overly lax rules capable of being interpreted differently. In this ‘anything goes’, system, frontline officials invent discretionary practices to create impediments and seek bribes. ‘You show me your face, and I’ll show you the rule,’ is an old and cynical adage.

The loopholes

Next, our narrow, legal definition of corruption enables many in a corrupt system to escape culpability. Indian law recognises only corrupt acts by public servants to be ‘acts of corruption’ under the law. As private corruption is not criminalised, many government actions are outsourced to private agents, who collect ‘handling fees’ on behalf of their partners in crime within the government. Witness builders’ agents, who collect bribes openly to have properties registered, even as the government IT enable such processes, aiming at efficiency and honesty.

E-Governance is often not the effective solution as claimed. E-enabled systems often only relocate the locus of corruption; they do not solve all of it. Large databases, such as land records, when moved to paperless systems are vulnerable to manipulation. Encroachments are enabled when old records are destroyed and new ones are created. Power shifts from land administrators to the one who possesses the digital signature. The data entry operator becomes an all-important and corruptible cog in the wheel.

How then do we tackle corruption? How do we destroy the entrenched resistance to true reforms, which harmonises citizen and collective interest in protecting the environment and promoting a healthy economy? Worldwide experience reveals no easy way out. The battle against networks of corrupt interests of politicians, bureaucrats, the private sector and regulators, has been a hard fought one. There are uneasy transitions and fake equilibriums in this battle of attrition; the corrupt do not cede ground easily.

Kick-start these strategies

Successful anti-corruption strategies rely on actions across three fronts.

First, regular assessments and evaluations of ongoing anti-corruption measures, eliminate the possibility of declaring false victories. They help in red-flagging new corruption opportunities, even as old ones are eliminated. A cycle of ongoing process reforms gets initiated.

Second, a genuine regime of whistle-blower protection assures honest citizens, politicians, bureaucrats and judges of protection, as they otherwise fear the adverse repercussions for uncovering illegal activities. Whistle-blowers today are exposed to danger. They draw attention to themselves and are vulnerable to attacks, ranging from character assassination, to counter accusations, to physical harm. Confidence-assuring whistle-blower protection measures can lead to exposure of more corruption, particularly at higher levels. Swift punishment of the guilty, could instil a sense of fear and reduce the feeling of impunity that the corrupt enjoy.

Third, there has to be a conscious move towards promoting ethical behaviour. Unfortunately, moral science education has been tainted by religious colours; but surely, are we not able to develop agnostic, religion-neutral ways of educating young people to be empathetic, kind, mindful of their larger responsibilities to the community, be honest, and intolerant of corruption?

All these strategies have been tried successfully in countries and cultures that have been able to reduce corruption substantially. This in turn has translated into better quality of services, and thus, a better quality of life. In turn, this nurtures creativity and bolsters the economy. Surely, Bengaluru deserves such a future.

However, there is one necessary ingredient remaining, going by the experience of cities and countries that have cleaned up their acts. If anti-corruption strategies are to be successful, the process needs enlightened leadership. No extent of process changes will succeed if the leadership — it need not be a single leader, but a network of high-ranking individuals cutting across the government and non-government sectors — is corrupt or insincere. In a democracy, waiting for such a leadership to emerge miraculously from so-called benevolent dictators is wishful thinking. The emergence of such a leadership depends upon us.

T.R. Raghunandan is former Secretary, Panchayati Raj, Government of Karnataka, former Joint Secretary, Ministry of Panchayati Raj, Government of India, and Senior Policy Adviser, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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