Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Corruption, Vigilance and “Us”

It is natural for you all to wonder about my whereabouts - I absconded for, I dunno, may be, a year or so !!!

Nevertheless, for your information, last week almost all the government departments were celebrating the Vigilance Awareness Week - not merely supposed to be a protocol observed for the last fourteen years or so [in 1998-9, Mr Vithal, then Chief Vigilance Commissioner started off the campaign in right earnest] - but a harsh reminder to all the corrupt 'insiders' as well as potential and would-be corrupt outsiders plus the malicious 'intruders'.

At the same time, it was a way to recharge the batteries of the Vigilance system - to examine the various nuances of the structure and devise plugs for the holes, if any. The basic theme of deliberation was to inspect whether the existing mechanism of public procurement had enough charge in it or needed to be re-charged. 

Well, quoting from memory:

"Orient is a place where the scholar never takes a degree"

That was what specifically Mr. Curzon had to say regarding India in particular, and the Eastern hemisphere in general. Curzon - who left an indelible imprint on the political fabric of colonised India - considered India to be an enigma, a puzzle, by which even a seasoned administrator like him was flummoxed.

It is no wonder, thus, an outsider, be it an Englishman or any person from the Occident, still keeps on unravelling the intricacies of the societal fabric of India and its consequent political and economic ramifications. Hence, we have scholars like Mark Tully of the BBC and a Stephen Cohen of the Washington-based Brookings Institute devoting precious hours of their daily routine to research on matters pertaining to India.

And what fundamentally confounds all the scholars about India – is not how such variegated heterogeneity resides under a singular umbrella – but how India still survives as a nation-state amidst all the chaotic population growth which at times challenges Malthusian concepts, and a vicious cycle of corruption existing as an untoward malice blackening the socio-cultural ethos of the nation.

Public procurement system is an inevitable arm of the day-to-day functioning of the executive – which is bound by the Constitution to implement the laws promulgated by the independent and democratically elected sovereign legislature. The system deserves scrutiny so as to eradicate corruption which might creep in, either deliberately or inadvertently; either due to structural defects or may be due to the gross incompetence and negligence of the personnel concerned or due to the machinations of the bureaucrat-minister combo.

Since Independence, and till 1991, India believed in License Raj – a quota based system and a potent weaponry for the injection of corruption into the political economy of the country. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the consequent ‘Domino Effect’ on the eastern European states leading to the demise of the erstwhile USSR in 1991, imported the IMF-flavoured concepts of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation into the Lingua Franca of even the hardcore Communist regimes – and India, though not a Communist state in any sense of the term, also felt the heat.

Slowly, but surely, words like ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability’ as key features appeared in the lexicon of governance and public administration in Third World nations. Today, in the wee hours of the 21st century, one can ignore these terms at her[his] own peril.

A number of statutory and administrative developments which took place in India in the last decade deserve mention. 
  • First, the promulgation of the Right to Information Act (2005) cleared the blind alleys of the public procurement system.
  • Second, the vibrancy of the media – online, print and electronic, keeps on pressuring the political-bureaucracy nexus not to indulge in rampant corruption and nepotism.
  • Third, and significant, is the upheaval of the Civil Society which keeps a strict vigil on any untoward “deal” – be it in the lucrative Defence sector or in the Public Distribution System.
  • And fourth, the constitutional pillars of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) as enshrined in the Arts. 148 to 151 of the Constitution, compounded with the institutionalisation of the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), have further tightened the noose on any lapse in the public procurement system.  

From the administrative perspective, public procurement is based upon the sound principles of financial probity and transparency. For instance, any public procurement in India, be it for the Railways, the Defence or any Civil Works is guided by written manuals; wherein it is specified that a specialised committee needs to be formed for the purpose; viz. the Tender Purchase Committee (TPC) does the job for various such procurements.

Moreover, TPCs are formed for various financial levels – each headed by suitable executives of adequate seniority in the scalar chain – bringing in experience and wisdom so as to ensure propriety without losing efficiency.

Furthermore, for all practical purposes, the relevant TPCs float Open Tender Enquiries so that just competition is allowed amongst vendors in an open market. To add to this, deliberations of the TPC meetings are noted down in writing and such ‘file-notings’ can also be sought for by the general public through the instrument of RTI.

And the ‘top-in’ on this TPC is provided in the form of a financial advisor – an independent arm which monitors the whole transaction procedure and looks for irregularities. As a completely ‘outsider’ organisation but with plenipotentiary powers to audit – the CAG is not to be forgotten at any cost whatsoever.

The procurements also conform to the general guidelines of the CVC and the General Financial Rules as floated from time to time by the central administration.

So, don’t you think that the above public procurement system as extant in India seems to be well within checks and balances, if not “fool-proof” and the related procedural formalities appear to be ‘quite adequate’? 

If that is the case, then why we listen to graft cases to the tune Rs 175 thousand crores – a phenomenal quantum indeed. Why do we keep on hearing about a ‘3G’ or an ‘Adarsh’ or for that matter a ‘Tatra’? 

Wherein lays the loophole which allows the insatiable corrupt crocodile to invade? 

Do we need a complete overhaul of the system? Or, do we need something else? 

Actually, if we have to examine the rationale behind the existence of corruption in our society, we need a posse of anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists and historians, among others. The defect does NOT lie in the procedures; rather it is embedded in the psyche of the people. 

It is not that corruption has come up only after Independence or it has raised its ugly, serpentine head in the last five to six years – which may appear so due to the wider publicity given to it by the media – but historically speaking, corruption existed in the sub-continent since the period of recorded history. And every society for that matter has the element of corruption. Isn’t Italy rampaged with the Mafia and scandalous politicos? Scandinavia might be an exception, nonetheless. 

It is no great discovery to associate corruption to South Asia at large and India or Bangladesh as particular examples – as sometimes claimed by the Transparency International. Moreover, not even poverty can be directly linked to endemic cases of corruption. Because, for most of the times, a wealthy desires to be wealthier by tricky means and we may cite umpteen examples in that regard. 

A police constable demanding bribe from a lorry driver is fundamentally no different from a Secretary or a Minister receiving cut-money from a contractor. In a similar vein, the lorry-driver is equally responsible as the vendor for the spread of corruption.

Some structural changes and edits, albeit minor, may surely be brought about in the procurement system – no doubt, but for a cleaner and transparent system, the personnel involved therein need to enhance their values and ethics and necessary uphold their integrity and probity. 

Probably, that is why, Bills are being mooted in the Parliament to bring in the possibility of an “Integrity Pact” between the vendor and the purchaser – in this case, the Govt. of India – as a part of the legal contract. 

Along with this, the office of the Lokpal or the Ombudsman might add an additional deterrent for the wrongdoers and at the same time, hasten the pendency of litigation. 

And before we wind up for today, a food for thought – why NOT usher in a performance based promotion system in the bureaucracy? That [might] bring in efficacy and reduce indiscriminate and indescribable corruption. After all, we all want to work only when we know there is something to be achieved. 

Ah, yes, I am not counting the philosophers and their abstractions here!!!!!!!!!! 

Talk to you all later, hopefully soon..........

These days, Uddipan Mukherjee wakes up very early – at 8 A.M. IST, yet struggles to pen down anything substantial for Indian Policy

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