My friend, Shri Shailesh Gandhi, recently published his views on the recent news on the Lokpal. He does not see the Lokpal office becoming a powerful watchdog against corruption unless the selection of its members has more transparency in the sense of ‘perfect fit to the post’, and unless the work of the institution is measured against proper parameters of its responsibilities.
On the background of his views, I got thinking on the institutional failures on the issue of corruption. We have Anti Corruption Offices in all states and the CBI and Central Vigilance Commission in the Centre. Really no dearth of such institutions and legal framework. Yet the problem of corruption flourishes. For an ordinary citizen, to get his work done in time in government offices, it’s not unusual to be harassed for bribes. It’s more the norm. I was watching a Canadian comedy show called ‘Just for Laughs’ the other day and it had a scene wherein the comedian as a fake traffic policeman stops motorists and asks for bribe to not challan. 4 out of 5 people-men and women- roll their eyes in disbelief at him and do not pay! The norm there is of expecting integrity in public jobs and corruption is an exception. Here, if a traffic policeman stops a citizen and asks for bribe, the citizen will not find that unusual. Unless we have that level of public expectation, corruption is a hard problem to solve. Creating more institutions may only result in more frustration at the non resolution of the problem of corruption.
Mr Gandhi’s suggestions for choosing people who can lead the transformation in the corruption culture in this country and measuring the institutional performance of the Lokpal very tightly are very good suggestions. But I am very wary of person-based solutions to hard problems. You may get good and effective people in one term and not so ones in the next. That is a big drain on public hope and exchequer. So are there different ways to approach the problem? To change the statistics (I don’t know if we measure that) on India’s public expectation of integrity in public service delivery?
To me, prevention strategies are the other approach. They exist here and there, but we have not much focused on them with enough vigour. They need to be tackled with the same seriousness as the setting up of the institution of the Lokpal-it can indeed bolster the Lokpal into becoming an effective anti corruption agency. If the ordinary citizen experiences less corruption in his personal and business life, the citizenry as a whole will become less tolerant of corruption and that will be the tipping point for this hard problem.
Lessening paper in government offices, moving towards electronic data, and undertaking a nation wide drive to identify and remove all unnecessary points of public contact for the public official in every government department needs to be done as a focused effort on war footing. For the Police, say traffic charges based on CCTV surveillance through integrated databases of motor vehicles, driving licences and ownership and vehicle insurance. Or FIRs which can be recorded by a call to the control room instead of the mandatory visit to the police station. Licences which can be obtained online. Municipal authorities could monitor their garbage collection through gps. Whether its staff is keeping public areas encroachment free could be tracked through GIS. Computerisation of land records and property registers is another area for work.
The Income Tax Department did it quietly and efficiently in the online filing of IT returns and their randomised assessments within the department. The public perception of corruption in the IT department has gone down considerably as a result. The Indian Railways long ago did it effectively too- by their online ticket selling IRCTC. The GSTN- which removed all the octroi posts- will also chip at the problem of corruption faced by the common man.
Once the points of unnecessary interaction of the people with government officials are reduced substantially, body cameras on the few officials dealing with public, could have enormous impact on corruption.
I think such major reforms are required to be undertaken in the workings /of the police, municipal, revenue and departments like FDA/Pollution Control Boards/Agriculture. They will improve the quality of life for the common man and reduce his general tolerance to corruption.