The Cost of Chaos
If corruption is left unchecked, South Asia is doomed to chaos, conflict and anarchy.
Transparency International (TI) has released its latest report titled 'Fighting Corruption in South Asia: Building Accountability'. Sadly, the report brings little joy to the people of Bangladesh, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. It finds South Asia to be the most corrupt region in the world. Ironically, these countries are also among the poorest in the world. Despite the fact that the South Asian sub-continent has attained strong economic growth over the past several years, it is the world's most corrupt region and rampant corruption is preventing its people from breaking the barriers of poverty.
Fifteen years ago, reporting on the pervasiveness of corruption in the region, the UNDP Human Development Report for South Asia (1999) outlined four distinct features of corruption. “In South Asia: corruption occurs upstream, not downstream; corruption money has wings, not wheels; corruption often leads to promotions, not prison terms; and corruption occurs with millions of people in poverty.” Other than a gradual intensification, these features have hardly undergone any changes.
The TI report, while analyzing how well the 70 national institutions of the six countries have functioned to stop corruption, concluded that in South Asian countries, the governments and the people who want to expose and investigate corruption face legal barriers, political opposition and harassment that allows unbridled bribery, secret dealings and the abuse of power to remain unimpeded.
Bangladesh, which topped the list of TI’s most corrupt nations along with Haiti in 2005, has its police, revenue and land departments among the most public institutions. Corruption in India has reached an all-time high with rates being exactly double of the global prevalence. The global index for the number of people who have paid bribes to access public services and institutions is 27 percent in the last twelve months. In India, however, the number of people who did the same was 54 percent. The most corrupt institution in India is its political parties, with a corruption rate as high as 4.4 on a scale of 5 (1 being the least corrupt rate and 5 being the highest). The highest amount of bribe was collected by the police – 62 percent, followed by those involved in registry and permit (61 percent), educational institutions (48 percent) and land services (38 percent). India's judiciary has also been found guilty of malpractices, with 36 percent staff involved in taking bribes.
Anna Hazare’s mass movement for the Lok Pal Bill and the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party to fight corruption depict the public mood. There were no surprises then that the Indian voters rejected the Congress party for its corrupt practices and expressed their confidence in Modi’s exemplary record as Gujarat’s chief minister since 2001. Under Modi, Gujarat’s 10 percent annual growth rate exceeded that of China’s while India’s annual growth rate has fallen to 5 percent since 2008.
TI has declared that the Maldives must empower anti-corruption agencies to investigate and prosecute cases in order to fight corruption. It also suggested that the anti-corruption bodies should be granted powers to instigate both corruption
investigations and prosecutions on their own initiative without prior government approval.
At present, the Maldives’ AntiCorruption Commission can only initiate investigations. It has to forward cases to the prosecutor general for any further action to be taken. The ACC itself has raised concerns over a Supreme Court ruling in which the apex court ruled that the body does not have the authority to prevent the state from entering into questionable contracts. The ACC has quoted a 2012 ruling on a legal battle, involving the Department of Immigration, the ACC and a Malaysian IT firm Nexbis, that had rendered the organization powerless.
According to TI, Nepal improved its status from 139th position in 2012 to 116th in 2013 out of 177 countries surveyed in the Corruption Perception Index (CPI). “Corruption in public bodies that should provide basic services to the poor means that economic growth is only enjoyed by the few," points out the report. The main reason for uncontrollable corruption in government organizations in Nepal is political interference. Interestingly, the Nepalese chapter of TI is considered the most inept, indolent chapter, now infested with retired civil servants. Definitely, the TI report on Nepal must be taken with a pinch of salt, since the same person has been commissioned to draft the National Integrity System report year after year.
In Sri Lanka, over 60 percent citizens are convinced that corruption in the country has increased over the past two years. TI finds Sri Lanka’s ranking in the Global CPI in 2013 to be 91 out of 177 countries with a score of 37 out of 100; a slide down by three points since 2012. A score of 50 or less indicate a serious corruption problem. TI’s observations depict corruption in the public sector to be a cause for serious concern. There are gaps in the anti-corruption mechanism while Sri Lanka’s Bribery Act of 1994 is yet to undergo any revision or update. The current act does not include private and civil society sectors and does not conform to the provisions of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNAC).
In Pakistan, corruption is pervasive in all strata of society with the government, police and public service institutions leading in accepting bribes and graft. According to TI’s latest report, in CPI, Pakistan scored 127 out of 175, a slight improvement from 139 out of 174 in 2012. The previous government led by the PPP (2008-2013) is regarded as the most corrupt in Pakistan’s history. The present incumbent in the corridors of power, the PML-N, does not have any corruption cases registered against it so far.
The TI’s report has identified three important areas to effectively overcome corruption within Pakistan, in particular with its focus on the role of the judiciary, the need for better anti-corruption measures and greater freedom of information. TI’s observations regarding the judiciary in Pakistan, historically subjected to nepotism, political patronage and favoritism, are pertinent but the report also commends the judiciary for taking up thousands of human rights cases and for declaring the controversial National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) unconstitutional for its attempt to grant amnesty to allegedly corrupt politicians and bureaucrats.
A full discussion on Pakistani organizations leading in corruption is beyond the scope of this article but some prominent cases are the Rental Power Projects, mismanagement of state-owned institutions like PIA and Pakistan Railways, the Hajj corruption case, the NATO container case, the Pakistan Steel Mills scam, the National Insurance Company Limited scandal, the Ephedrine quota case and the mediagate scandal, just to name a few.
If corruption is left unchecked, South Asia is doomed to chaos, conflict and anarchy. TI itself has recommended the use of the platform of SAARC to address corruption. Unfortunately, apart from one occasion, all SAARC summits have failed to address the issue thus it may not be the right platform to resolve the serious problem of corruption.
A leaf may be taken from China’s book, where President Xi-Jinping’s anti-corruption policy of taming both ‘meat-eating tigers’ and ‘low-level flies’ implies pursuing a top-down anti-corruption agenda, rather than a bottoms-up strategy which bears no result without any big fish being netted. To rid South Asia of corruption is akin to the Herculean task of cleaning the Augean Stables but it has to be undertaken.