Tackling Corruption

  • 30/10/1998

The solutions to corruption lie in a complex and comprehensive set of responses.

There is a need to study and spread greater public awareness about how corruption is gnawing away the vitals of society and affecting its governance system. This is particularly important in a situation when corruption is not just limited to high-level politicians but extends to every nook and corner of the governance system.

There is a need to promote greater transparency in governance systems.

The civil society and the media can play a critical role in bringing about this change. The Centre for Science and Environment, for instance, is currently working on a project to publicly rate the environmental performance of Indian firms. The purpose of this project, funded by the United Nations Development Fund and supported by the ministry of environment and forests, is to focus public attention on companies which flout environmental norms. This transparency will, on one hand, provide a "reputation-based incentive" to companies which are making an effort to improve their environmental performance. On the other hand, it will provide a disincentive to government agencies, like pollution control boards and industrial development banks which provide finance, in dealing with the companies badly rated.

Participation of the public in government policies and programmes is crucial together with measures for promoting transparency. Even at the village-level experience shows that when decisions are taken at the gram sabha level - that is, in an open meeting of all village adults - rather than in a closed meeting of the gram panchayat - that is, the council of village elected representatives - they are much more honest and usually favour projects that benefit the villagers at large rather than a privileged few. In 1977, when the Rajasthan government had announced an antyodaya project which aimed to identify the five poorest families in the village for government support, the identification process went off well till senior district officials held open village meetings to identify the target group. But after the senior district officials argued back that this involved too much work and the identification was handed over to the patwari, the village-level revenue functionary, everything went wrong. The patwari would consult the panchayat leaders and they would normally get their kin or henchmen included in the list.

While there are now several excellent models for effectively involving local communities in natural resource management, there is a need to develop effective models for involving the public in environmental regulation and inspection system. The latter is an area that needs considerable thinking, research and experimentation.

One possible model could be built on the jury system adopted in a few western countries. Citizens can be mandated to work as environmental inspectors for a specified period for which they will be paid. A city government, for instance, could take on 500 to 1,000 citizens every month and put them through a week-long training programme on the importance of air and water regulations and give them details of the work they are supposed to do. Squads of three to four inspectors can then be sent out together to undertake inspection of polluting activities in order to reduce the chances of corruption by the team inspectors. Samples collected by them could be coded before being sent to the laboratory.

In this way, the government will also be able to save the money that is otherwise gobbled up by corrupt officials. As inspection teams will change rapidly, there will not be enough opportunity and time for them to develop a nexus with the polluters. Moreover, these people would, in turn, play a key role in spreading awareness on the importance of environmental protection within society. As many well-educated people can be brought into the inspection process, the quality of the inspection force can also be raised.

Corruption has to become an important issue in primary and secondary education in order to deal with those cultural aspects that engender the phenomenon. A respect for state regulations and state property, for nature, and for the poor and marginalised must be to inculcated from childhood. But this requires a clear acceptance by the political system and the powerful in the society that corruption is an epidemic phenomenon and must be faced frontally.

The civil society must organise itself to promote a campaign for alternate forms of governance. Myrdal points out, "... The relative integrity in politics and administration was achieved in Great Britain, Holland and Scandinavia during a period when state activity was reduced to a minimum."

This comment raises a serious question whether a decentralised governance system in which the role of the state is limited would be critical for containing corruption. It could be argued that the role of the state should be restricted to that of regulator rather than that of regulator, producer and provider, all rolled into one. By restricting the size of the state bureaucracy, the government would also be able to pay its officials, especially junior officials, better. Low salaries of these officials is often cited as a cause of widespread corruption.

Decentralisation efforts in villages like Seed, Sukhomajri and Ralegan Siddhi have shown that not only does devolution of power to structures like gram sabhas (village assemblies) lead to less corruption but also better village-level natural resource management (see box: Bringing to heel).

In India, however, the biggest opponents to measures to decentralise control over finances and natural resource management to local bodies like village councils and urban municipalities have been state-level legislators. This happened both in the case of Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh where attempts have been made to promote and strengthen Panchayati Raj.

This article is based on a paper prepared for the UNDP Regional Conference on Integrity and Governance held in Bangkok in June/July, 1998

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