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TRANSPARENTLY CORRUPT
- Corruption can be fought only if the people pick up the gauntlet

The author is a retired air marshal of the Indian air force

There has been a spate of editorials and commentaries in the media in response to Transparency International’s recently released Corruption Perceptions Index 2002, wherein India faces the dubious distinction of featuring at the bottom third of the scale. Such widespread interest is a healthy sign amidst an otherwise bleak political and governance landscape.

This report card has been received with stony silence by those whose sole responsibility it is to provide good governance to the country, be they at the Centre, the states, in the multitude of public sector units or lesser municipal and other organizations. This is hardly surprising since it is their sterling non-performance that has earned for this country the dubious distinction of being at the bottom third of the honesty heap.

Those in society still left with a sense of national dignity, sense of fair play and respect for the truth (and mercifully there are many), while being fully aware that we are neck deep in corruption, would still want to be sure about the soundness of this entire exercise. The questions that legitimately arise are: how credible is this survey in a world where disinformation can be used as an effective tool to promote self-interest and is this an objective and an impartial tool that merits attention' Also can perceptions replace cold empirical data when dealing with issues that have a direct bearing on long- term development of countries' To elicit answers to some of these questions, this writer looked at the Transparency International website from where some of the following clarifications emerged.

Transparency International is the only international nongovernmental organization devoted to combating corruption. It works through its international secretariat and 80 independent national chapters around the world. The CPI ranks countries in terms of the degree to which corruption is perceived to exist among public officials and politicians. For purposes of surveys, corruption is defined as the abuse of public office for private gain and no differential is made between administrative and political corruption. Since bribe-paying fuels corruption, Transparency International also conducts and publishes comprehensive bribe-paying surveys that focus on the study of bribe-paying in international trade.

The methodology followed for the CPI is to draw on fifteen different polls and surveys from nine independent institutions. Those surveyed in a country include business people and country analysts, both resident and expatriates. The requirement is for at least three sources to be available for any country before the database can be considered adequately robust for consideration.

This explains why only 102 countries of the world are included in the 2002 rankings amongst around 200 countries. Only excellent and well-documented data qualifies to be considered and TI strives to ensure that the sources used are of the highest quality and that the survey work is performed with complete integrity. The methodologies used to analyse findings are described on the internet and are periodically reviewed by a steering committee consisting of leading international experts in the fields of corruption, econometrics and statistics, who then suggest improvements.

The reason why perception of those surveyed forms the basis rather than hard empirical data is because the latter does not reflect actual levels of corruption. For example, empirical data like number of prosecutions or court cases, while being a reflection on the efficacy of the prosecuting or judicial system, will not necessarily reflect on true corruption. The CPI, however, attempts to cover the subjectivity of perceptions by spreading the number of polls and surveys and indicating not just the average rating, but also the highest and lowest values among different sources.

CPI 2002 was launched on the eve of the world summit for sustainable development in Johannesburg and the message to the summit by the chairman of TI was succinct. It identified corrupt political elites in the developing world, working hand-in-hand with greedy business people and unscrupulous investors in putting private gain before the welfare of citizens and the economic development of their countries. It warned that corruption impeded sustainable development and robbed the children of today of the resources they would need to survive tomorrow.

The TI is also a part of the coalition of 60 NGOs and civil society organizations from across the world that is spearheading the “Publish What You Pay” initiative at the WSSD. This is about holding both companies and governments to account for money that is being paid during international trade, since large amounts are routinely siphoned out of the system.

With this background, let us look at India. Twelve surveys formed the basis of India finding itself at 77th place out of a total of 102 countries with a score of 2.7 out of 10, with the highest survey score being 3.6 and the lowest, 2.4. Not much emphasis need be placed on the exact score or indeed the rating, as these are mere indicators of the wider malaise, which is that the biggest impediment to India’s progress and development is corruption. It begins at the highest levels of governance and politics and percolates to the petty babu sitting in a municipal office. Citing a conviction rate in criminal courts of just six per cent, N. Vittal, the recently retired central vigilance commissioner, termed corruption in India a low-risk-high-profit business. He lamented that the Corrupt Public Servants (Forfeiture of Property) Act that was sent by the law commission to the government in 1999 on his suggestion, was yet to be enacted.

Citing black money as the oxygen for corruption and the basis for political funding, he regretted that the various measures, suggested to the government to tackle this menace by the Central vigilance commission, have remained on paper. The obvious conclusion is that a system that thrives on corrupt practices can hardly be expected to throttle its source of oxygen. If indeed this judgment appears harsh, then the following example should drive home the point.

The last Parliament session which ended in a stalemate with no business being transacted for many days, is perhaps the most recriminatory in recent history. And yet no sooner had our self-appointed royalty, masquerading as peoples representatives, turned their backs on the doors of Parliament House than the nation was witness to the rarest example of “total political consensus”. Such consensus amongst our legislators finds parallel, rarely in their legitimate legislative business, but invariably when their own pay and perquisites need to be enhanced.

The offshoot of this newfound consensus was the proposed ordinance to amend the Representation of Peoples Act. This ordinance flies in the face of the Supreme Court’s ruling which had endorsed the voter’s right to know the antecedents, including the criminal past, of prospective candidates as fundamental for the survival of democracy. Not surprisingly, the president returned the ordinance to the cabinet for consideration and predictably it met with an obdurate response citing political consensus as justification. This is the level that peoples representatives are willing to stoop to perpetuate and feather their cosy nests.

The debate that the recent Transparency International report should generate is therefore not about how high up or low down we are as a nation on the CPI. But now that our self-styled emperors have shed even a modicum of pretence of being clothed, the larger issue is where we go from here. Since it is abundantly clear that those who hold the key to the nation’s governance, development and indeed survival are the very ones withholding progress for personal gain, there is only one alternative. The people must pick up the gauntlet.

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