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.
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.