Anti corruption crusades

  • 14/02/1997

The anti-corruption crusades of Krishna Bhaurao Hazare (popularly known as Anna Hazare) and G R Khairnar (former municipal commissioner, Mumbai) have received considerable media attention. With T N Seshan also keen to join their ranks, another spirited citizen is likely to take on the mantle of an anti-corruption crusader.

I, however, find it very difficult to be enthusiastic about this crusade. I am yet to be convinced that corruption, particularly high-level corruption, is the most important problem in India and that such crusades will lead to any permanent changes or societal gains. It appears to me that it is the governance crisis in the country that is at the heart of India's malady. In fact, high-level corruption, like its more pernicious low-level counterpart, is related to the lack of transparency and accountability in the governance system.

Let us look at the challenges facing India in another way. Why is India's economic growth rate so poor? Why, nearly half a century after independence, are we still struggling with so much poverty and illiteracy? Why can't we make sincere efforts to bring about a balance between environment and development? Why can't we ensure that everyone has access to decent, basic health services? Why can't everyone get clean drinking water? I don't see how high-level corruption affects efforts to meet these key objectives of the Indian state.

Experiences from abroad also have something to teach us. usa , Japan and South Korea are amongst the most dynamic countries in the world, but their higher political echelons are known to be riddled with corruption. What puts them apart from India is that once a politician gets enmeshed in a corruption scandal, regardless of whether that politician is a president or a prime minister, he,she has to go. In other words, these are countries whose governance systems continue to work despite high-level corruption.

And, finally, one may ask, is corruption limited only to financial impropriety and undue distribution of favours and privileges? The petroleum ministry knowingly supplies fuel of such a poor quality that it is bound to kill thousands of Indian citizens; is that not corruption of an even graver kind? The inefficiency, sloth and the inaction of the government today is taking a far heavier toll of the Indian people and their economy and development than high-level political corruption ever can.

Both Hazare and Seshan have a wealth of experience of what constitutes good governance. Hazare's work in his village Ralegan Siddhi is probably the most outstanding example of rural development work in India. From a destitute village marked for its vast tracts of degraded lands and high rates of out-migration, Hazare has converted his village into a rich, happy and green settlement. This prosperity has come through the self-organisation and hard work of the villagers themselves. Some money did come from the government through its rural employment programmes, but the villagers themselves organised the spending of the money and used it efficiently. The result is that Ralegan Siddhi today has a branch of a bank of its own with villagers' deposits running into tens of lakhs of rupees. How many Indian villages can boast of such a privilege? The best part is, everything has been achieved using a strategy based on sustainable development and sustainable livelihoods. I can't, therefore, think of anyone more qualified than Hazare who can lead a national movement to bring about good governance systems at the country's grassroots.

Take Seshan's experience as a bureaucrat in the environment ministry, something which I am most familiar with. In the days that Seshan ran the ministry under the direct supervision of Rajiv Gandhi, there was a certain dynamism in the ministry. The Forest Conservation Act was amended to strengthen its provisions and strongly applied; the Environment Protection Act was prepared and passed; and, the New Forest Policy to update the 35-year-old one in existence was formulated and accepted. Besides, these were the formative years of the ministry during which most of its rules, regulations and procedures were laid out. It would be useful to ask what has been the achievement of any of the secretaries who preceded or succeeded Seshan in improving environmental management in the country. Seshan would, thus, be the best person to tell the country what is wrong with the system: Does the problem lie with bad political leadership? Or with the bureaucratic system in which officials do not have to prove themselves before they get promoted to a senior position? Is corruption ever possible without a nexus between politicians and self-seeking and pliant bureaucrats? And once the reasons are better understood, the question would be: What changes are needed to bring about better governance?

The evil of corruption is merely a symptom of the larger problem; unless we address the larger problem, it is unlikely we will ever get to the root cause of the evil. India's governance system was developed in the 19th century by a colonial power whose key interest was to exploit the country and extract as much wealth as it could for its own economic growth. This governance system cannot lead India into a dynamic future in the 21st century. Seshan and Hazare would do better to address themselves to such grave issues.

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