The Neme­sis of Cor­rup­tion

Bat­tle against graft across South Asia is nei­ther the pre­serve of the masses nor should it be a sim­plis­tic bat­tle cry against politi­cians.

Southasia - - Cover story - By Eht­e­sham Shahid

A“ lit­tle bit of cor­rup­tion is good for the lo­cal econ­omy.” This star­tling state­ment from a hap­pen­ing cus­tom of­fi­cial in Kolkata sur­prised me no end. I was aware that cor­rup­tion is ram­pant in his depart­ment and that a slab ex­ists in most such de­part­ments that en­sure cuts for of­fi­cials based on hi­er­ar­chy, in­flu­ence and con­nec­tions. Such tainted of­fi­cials grease the palms of the pow­ers that be to get plum post­ings and make merry there­after. But this was still too di­rect an ad­mis­sion and, more im­por­tantly, too mat­ter-of-fact a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for my com­fort. As a re­sult of this en­counter, I was not sur­prised when civil so­ci­ety or­ga­ni­za­tions in In­dia got to­gether to launch a cru­sade – more fa­mously known as the Anna Hazare move­ment – to counter the men­ace of cor­rup­tion.

But In­dia is not alone when it comes to mak­ing head­lines for the wrong rea­sons. Of all the di­ver­si­ties South Asia boasts of, cor­rup­tion is one un­wel­come phe­nom­e­non that makes them all look alike. Whether it is the multi-crore govern­ment scams in In­dia, unac­counted money of politi­cians stashed abroad in Pak­istan, abuse of power for pri­vate gain in Bangladesh, crony­ism in the ap­point­ment of civil ser­vants in Sri Lanka or the cul­ture of pri­vate and pub­lic cor­rup­tion im­ped­ing progress in Nepal, they all point to a com­mon malaise. It boils down to some ba­sic rea­sons – lack of ac­count­abil­ity, ram­pant nepo­tism, tardy ju­di­cial process and a com­plicit and pro­tec­tion­ist po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.

Whether it is a typ­i­cal third world phe­nom­e­non is a sub­ject of an­other dis­cus­sion. But a sim­plis­tic anal­y­sis would sug­gest that low salaries of pub­lic of­fi­cials, govern­ment’s over in­dul­gence in li­cens­ing pro­ce­dures and in­equitable dis­tri­bu­tion of wealth in so­ci­ety are pos­si­ble causes be­hind graft in pub­lic sphere. That doesn’t mean cor­rup­tion in high places is not in­im­i­cal to the coun­try in gen­eral. Broadly speak­ing cor­rup­tion is ei­ther in­di­vid­ual – at­trib­uted to lack of good val­ues – or sys­temic, which can be traced to a dys­func­tional and opaque sys­tem that leaves lit­tle room for vir­tu­ous con­duct.

All these fac­tors oper­ate across South Asian coun­tries, al­beit with vary­ing de­grees. There was not much to sep­a­rate them in the Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional’s Cor­rup­tion Per­cep­tions In­dex of 2010. In­dia scored 3.3

out of 10 while Pak­istan scored 2.3, Bangladesh 2.4, Sri Lanka 3.2, Mal­dives 2.3 and Nepal 2.2. How­ever, it is In­dia – or should I say the Anna Hazare move­ment – that has hogged the lime­light in re­cent months. Hazare’s re­peated fasts cham­pi­oning the cause of the Jan Lok­pal, or the cit­i­zens’ om­buds­man bill propos­ing independent anti-cor­rup­tion law, man­aged to mobilize masses across the coun­try.

With­out go­ing into the mer­its of this piece of leg­is­la­tion, the ar­gu­ment holds both ways. While such mea­sures have be­come nec­es­sary con­sid­er­ing the mon­ster of cor­rup­tion that con­fronts In­dia to­day an­other view is that leg­is­la­tion is not so much an is­sue as ex­e­cu­tion. The Jan Lok­pal Bill is aimed at ef­fec­tively de­ter­ring cor­rup­tion, re­dress­ing griev­ances of cit­i­zens and pro­tect­ing whis­tle-blow­ers. If made into law, the bill would cre­ate an independent om­buds­man body called the Lok­pal that would be em­pow­ered to reg­is­ter and in­ves­ti­gate com­plaints of cor­rup­tion against politi­cians and bu­reau­crats with­out prior govern­ment ap­proval.

The is­sue, how­ever, is that a bevy of laws to tackle cases of cor­rup­tion have ex­isted in In­dia for long. But they are rarely im­ple­mented the way they should be and have largely failed to curb cor­rup­tion. An­other con­tra­dic­tion that the Anna Hazare move­ment led to was the pri­macy of the Par­lia­ment as a body em­pow­ered to make leg­is­la­tions. Since elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives have the power to leg­is­late in a democ­racy, the prece­dence of civil so­ci­ety or­ga­ni­za­tions dic­tat­ing terms to the govern­ment was seen by many as a dan­ger­ous trend. More im­por­tantly, mobs may not al­ways rep­re­sent the voice of the peo­ple. There are also those who saw the en­tire move­ment as hav­ing an op­po­si­tion-spon­sored agenda to ma­lign the govern­ment and oc­cupy power. Truth lies some­where in be­tween.

The fact re­mains that in In­dia, and else­where in South Asia, ac­cep­tance of cor­rup­tion as fait ac­com­pli de­picts a kind of moral de­cay. Most govern­ment of­fi­cials, es­pe­cially those be­long­ing to law en­force­ment agen­cies, get low salaries and have to make ‘ex­tra earn­ings’ to make their ends meet. Their low in­come may not be an ex­cuse for cor­rup­tion but is cer­tainly one of the root causes. But cor­rup­tion gen­er­ally flows top-down and in that re­gard Anna Hazare’s in­sis­tence on the of­fice of prime min­is­ter be­ing brought un­der Lok­pal’s purview makes sense.

Not­with­stand­ing whether this move­ment will curb or end cor­rup­tion, the good news is that a re­al­iza­tion has set in and there is more open­ness to­wards learn­ing from each oth­ers’ ex­pe­ri­ences. The big­gest ex­am­ple in this re­gard has been so­cial ac­tivist Anna Hazare’s nod to tak­ing his bat­tle against cor­rup­tion across the bor­der to Pak­istan. A two-mem­ber del­e­ga­tion from Pak­istan called on Anna re­cently at his vil­lage in Ma­ha­rash­tra, near Mum­bai, with a re­quest that he travel to their coun­try to guide them in fight­ing cor­rup­tion. Anna is said to have agreed to visit when he was ‘fit to travel.’ The Pak­istani del­e­ga­tion com­prised re­tired Supreme Court judge Nasir As­lam Zahid, who is a mem­ber of the In­dia-Pak­istan ju­di­cial com­mit­tee on pris­on­ers’ jus­tice, and Kara­mat Ali, trade union leader and peace ac­tivist.

Speak­ing on the oc­ca­sion, Ali said, “We com­pli­ment Hazare for the steps he ini­ti­ated to re­strict cor­rupt prac­tices in In­dia. Like In­dia, we too are be­set with cor­rup­tion. Un­like In­dia, how­ever, we do not have an Anna Hazare. We want him to visit Pak­istan, which will cre­ate pres­sure on our govern­ment. We want him to guide us in fight­ing cor­rup­tion.” In­spired by Anna, an Is­lam­abad busi­ness­man has al­ready been fast­ing against cor­rup­tion since Septem­ber 12. Ac­cord­ing to Zahid cor­rup­tion is ham­per­ing so­ci­eties at large. “Hazare’s bat­tle re­ceived big sup­port from cit­i­zens be­cause his aim was to make democ­racy mean­ing­ful. He can play a sim­i­lar role dur­ing his visit to Pak­istan,” he is quoted to have said.

An­other South Asian coun­try, Bangladesh re­cently took a sim­i­lar step, al­beit in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion. A group, headed by Par­lia­ment Del­e­ga­tion chief Su­ran­jit Sen­gupta, re­cently paid a visit to In­done­sia’s Cor­rup­tion Erad­i­ca­tion Com­mis­sion. Su­ran­jit’s team has been given a spe­cial man­date by Bangladesh Prime Min­is­ter Sheikh Hasina to im­prove its An­ti­Cor­rup­tion Com­mit­tee (ACC), whose per­for­mance has not been on par with the KPK, even though it was es­tab­lished in 2004.

The will­ing­ness to learn and co­op­er­ate may be a step in the right di­rec­tion but a re­al­iza­tion needs to set in if these coun­tries are to stamp out cor­rup­tion. This process must start with cleans­ing of the self. In­di­vid­u­als, civil so­ci­ety or­ga­ni­za­tions, ju­di­ciary and other stake­hold­ers in a coun­try sim­ply blame the politi­cians with­out tak­ing their own share of re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. The fact though is that politi­cians are as much part of our so­ci­eties as any other and that, even though they may be most cor­rupt, they are not the only ones par­tic­i­pat­ing in cor­rup­tion. More im­por­tantly, they ex­ist be­cause we elect them to rep­re­sent us.

The cause and ef­fect of cor­rup­tion may be dif­fer­ent in each South Asian coun­try but it also has the po­ten­tial to serve as a con­verg­ing fac­tor for which a com­mon strat­egy can be de­vised. If that hap­pens, the civil so­ci­ety’s bat­tle against cor­rup­tion will quickly bring a ray of hope for the em­bat­tled South Asian pop­u­lace cut­ting across national bound­aries.

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