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M N Buch
Focus on good governance alone can check graft
Posted: Thursday, 15 Sep 2011 at 9:32 AM
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It was as early as 1809 that Sweden appointed an ombudsman whose main job was to provide a forum for ventilation and remedy of public grievances against government officials for inaction or unjust action.  Quite obviously it wasn’t so much corruption as arbitrariness of government that agitated the Swedish populace. It speaks volumes of the King and the Swedish government that they set up an office of ombudsman, accountable only to parliament, whose principal duty was to ensure that government functioned in accordance with the law, rules and regulations. Citizens could approach the functionary for redressal of any grievance they had against the government.

The need to create good government and citizens' welfare was thus the sole objective behind creating the office of ombudsman -- a people friendly institution.  When Britain set up a similar organization under the parliamentary commissioner for administration in 1963, the Swedish ombudsman served as the natural model.  The parliamentary commissioner is open to all complaints involving  government functioning, including the conduct of ministers. He is empowered to give suitable directions to government departments, and if they do not heed his directives, to bring the matter  to the notice of Parliament.

In fact, in Britain any citizen can file a complaint before his member of parliament (MP) who then refers the matter to the parliamentary commissioner. The latter conducts a probe and informs the MP of the results, giving suitable directions to the department concerned before tabling his report in Parliament. Corruption is considered a criminal offence in both Britain and Sweden. Which is why it falls within the competence of the police and other investigating agencies.  Good government rather than vigilance against corruption is the concern in these countries. Reason being if there is good government, corruption is automatically reduced to a minimum if not altogether eliminated.

India is now witnessing a mass ferment led by the urban middle class which is so fed up with the high levels of graft in daily life that they have backed an agitation whose main objective is the enactment of a law creating a Lokpal.  Those leading the agitation want a Lokpal with omnibus authority to deal with corruption, and suitably empowered to take action against all and sundry. The Lokpal is being seen as a magic mantra which will make corruption disappear almost overnight.

The major weakness of this movement is that none of its proponents speaks about good government as the best cure for corruption.  When the institution of Lokayukta was created, hopes to end end corruption were expressed in state assemblies and Parliament. But as Justice Santosh Hegde admitted, the experiment has not been a success.  Activists argue that the Lokpal will have sufficient powers to correct the infirmities which hamper the Lokayukta’s efficacy. The focus, sadly, remains firmly on the institution which entertains complaints about corruption, investigates and prosecute offenders.  Implicit in the arrangement is that if the agitators have their way, the Lokpal would act as a kangaroo court, meting out arbitrary punishments to those under probe. There are shades of the lynch law which colour the present agitation.

The point missed by everyone angry and disgusted with government is that corruption is not ‘swayambhu’ or self manifested like one of the 12 jyotirlings. Corruption is the direct result of a system of government in which the rule of law has virtually ceased to exist.  In a democracy in which there is separation of powers the legislature gives us laws, rules, and the policy framework within which the executive functions. The executive, on its part, frames policy for implementing the mandate given to government by the electorate and legislature. In doing so it is bound to implement the law and the laid down policy with complete impartiality to ensure that none is above it. The preamble of the Constitution mandates this, as do Article 14 as well as the Directive Principles of State Policy.

In such a polity and system of government not even the prime minister enjoys the discretion or authority to flout rules, ignore, act arbitrarily or govern with prejudice and bias. No one may seek a favour on the basis of a bribe because regardless of it none in government will be authorized to give an undue favour. This would automatically rule out all discretionary quotas and grants, disempower a minister or an officer from giving undue preference or benefit to an individual, group or company, or undue profit to the official granting the favour. This may extend to house allotments, land grants, postings or transfers, concessions in contracts, purchases and acquisitions, investigation of offences. In short, any myriad exercise, financial or administrative, involving the government. The citizen would get only that which the rules permit, and government would decide only which the rules mandate.  In such a system there is very little scope for corruption.

Let us compare the case of Iqbal Singh who was lieutenant governor of Pondicherry and Keith Vaz who was minister of state for Home in Britain. As a legislator in the Punjab, Iqbal Singh had recommended the case of Hassan Ali, currently under investigation in large-scale financial fraud and money laundering, for issue of a passport and  other favours. It took the strong intervention of the Supreme Court to force Iqbal Singh out of office and he virtually had to be carried out of the Raj Nivas, kicking and screaming. He even tried brazening out his wrongdoing.

Keith Vaz had merely written a letter to the British Foreign Office to enquire about the status of the passport application of one of the Hinduja brothers. On a single complaint by a Foreign Office official which stated that he had tried interfering in a matter which did not concern him, Vaz resigned.  Another case which can be cited is that of the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in Britain.  When it was found that he had employed some former journalists of the now defunct tabloid, News of the World, as police PROs, he resigned his post as did his assistant in-charge of CID for poor investigation of cases against the NOTW. 

In India the CBI prepared a list of 50 persons wanted by our police who were alleged to be hiding in Pakistan.  Our Foreign Office, at the insistence of the ministry of home affairs, forwarded the list to the Pakistan government and asked for their arrest and deportation. Pakistan pointed out that two of them were in the CBI’s custody, one on bail, the other in jail. No CBI official owned up the faux pas.  The sole action taken was to suspend a lowly CBI inspector. So is it any wonder that in Britain there are very few allegations of corruption by officials whereas in India there are few officials against whom there are no such allegations.

Hence the fear that far from ending corruption, the Lokpal may on the contrary compound it given the demand for a parallel administrative structure. What India needs is an ombudsman or parliamentary commissioner for administration. Corruption is a criminal offence under the Indian Penal Code and Prevention of Corruption Act. The criminal justice system in India mandates that investigation of offences be carried out by the police along with a special anti-corruption unit.  We need to strengthen the police and ensure that its officers work strictly in keeping with the procedures laid down in Chapter XII of the Code of Criminal Procedure. There should be absolutely no intervention or interference with the process of probe. What is necessary is strict supervision by superiors to ensure that investigating officers do their work honestly and diligently and do not deviate on account of pressure, bribes, and other inducements. Insulate the police from undue pressure in doing their duty is a must.

If the police machinery is properly restructured, supervised and goaded to do its duty, we do not need a Lokpal or a Lokayukta to probe corruption related offences. What we need is a watchdog who will keep an eye on how government is functioning and then ensure that it functions strictly in accordance with rules and regulations.Every case of delay, unnecessary file pushing, raising of objections only for its sake, passing orders which are biased and favour a particular individual or group, directions from ministers which are willful and contrary to rules are all matters fit to be brought within the purview of the ombudsman who should have sufficient powers to give suitable directions to the department concerned.

The chief election commissioner and the commission he heads acts as an ombudsman in all election related matters. During polls the entire machinery of government which might have anything to do with the conduct of elections comes directly under the control of the Election Commission. We need an ombudsman as powerful as the EC to direct the government in administrative matters. The minute we are able to reestablish good government in which there is clearly determined accountability and a chain of command which is charged with ensuring proper discharge of this accountability, corruption will come under control.

The present agitation is misguided and misdirected, completely misses out the need for good government. The end result will be a cipher.

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