Eradication of bribery in South Asia

Tuesday, 30 August 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines a ‘bribe’ as ‘a sum of money or something valuable that you give or offer to somebody to persuade them to help you by doing something dishonest.

In India and other parts of the sub continent, a gift to some one of authority to encourage him to do something wrong or to reward him for doing something to help which is improper, after the fact, is often referred to in slang as ‘Buckshee’ – derived, according to Hobson-Jobson, a glossary of Anglo-Indian words and phrases, from the Mongol or Turki corruption of the Sanskrit Bhikshu, a Buddhist or religious mendicant or member of an ascetic order, bound by his discipline to obtain his daily food by seeking alms.

‘Bakshi’ was the word commonly applied by the Tartar cavalry troopers who accompanied Chingiz Khan and his successors, who invaded north India, and after them by the Persian writers of the Mongol era, to refer to the regular Buddhist clergy, they came across.

Over centuries the word was corrupted and used by colonial British army troops, to refer to the giving of money or gifts to anyone – e.g.: ‘Just give him some Buckshee’. In all the languages of the sub continent there are slang words which describe a bribe; ‘Jarawa’ in Sinhala and ‘Lanjam’ in Tamil.

Hunger strike

Anna Hazare, a Gandhian from Maharashthra in India, an ex-Army driver whose claim to fame hitherto was for running a rural model village, where he implemented religiously inspired iron discipline to raise education standards and improve agricultural productivity, has started a fast for 15 days in the Ram Lila Maidan in Delhi to force the Government to enact a Jan Lokpal law – an anti bribery law, which has been hanging fire from the time of India’s independence.

Hazare first demanded that the Jan Lokpal Bill (Citizens Ombudsman Bill) be passed into law and started a fast unto death. On the fourth day of Hazare’s first hunger strike, before Hazare could even build up a decent level of hunger, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stated that the bill would be introduced in the 2011 monsoon session of Parliament.

A series of corruption scandals, the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, the allocation of 2G mobile spectrum licenses, the allocation of subsidised housing meant for families of war heroes to politicians and their families, has created such a high sense of public revulsion against India’s political class, among students, professionals, honest bureaucrats, the business community and India’s emerging middle class, that Hazare’s movement to enforce the enactment of a Lokpal Law has struck a chord with these ordinary Indians.

The high profile acts of bribery and corruption reinforced the revulsion of the average Indian who has to face requests for Bakshi from petty officialdom on a daily basis. Even the famed lunch carriers of Mumbai went on a demonstration in support of team Hazare’s efforts. Similar demonstrations have broken out throughout India.

Blundering reaction

The reaction of the Indian Government was typically blundering and messy, subsequent to the Prime Minister’s undertaking to introduce the bill into the monsoon session of Parliament. At first they tried to subvert Hazare by offering a Joint Drafting Committee of Ministers and Team Hazare. Senior ministers met with Team Hazare independently and the Joint Committee had a number of sittings.

The final outcome was that virtually the official Government draft was submitted to Cabinet without any major ideas from the Hazare Team being included. This the Cabinet approved.

When Hazare was about to resume his fast unto death, the Government started a vicious campaign attacking Hazare’s past work, calling him corrupt, etc. Some young, vile, loud mouthed and crude Members of Parliament, representing the worst of India’s political class, were let loose like wild rabid dogs. They conveniently forgot that Hazare had been awarded national honors for his work, the man who they were now ridiculing!

This had a completely negative effect on the Government and not on Hazare and the Government of India quickly back tracked, and the wild dogs were muzzled and taken out of the public eye. On Wednesday, one of them actually apologised to Anna Hazare for any ‘hurt’ he had caused, speaking before TV cameras outside the Indian Parliament building.

Bigger blunder

But the next move was an even bigger blunder! The Delhi Police arrested Hazare and his supporters and locked them up in Delhi’s famous Tihar jail, the same Jail in which the Chairman of the Commonwealth Games Organising Committee, Congress Party M.P. Kamaldi, the Minister who ran riot with the 2G Spectrum, A. Raja and others were also guests of the State on corruption charges! Hazare promptly went on fast again.

The Police, realising their monumental mistake, released him from Tihar Jail – but Anna Hazare refused to leave, unless he was guaranteed the right to fast for such a time that he determined, at a location in Delhi of his choice, in the company of such a number of supporters who may turn up, until Lokpal became law.

The sublime had turned to farce, and now was verging on the ridiculous. An old man, a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, who had been incarcerated in jail by a blundering Government, had been released, but now was willingly remaining in jail, until the Government concedes his demand as to the parameters of his protest!

Finally the Police agreed that Hazare be allowed to fast for 15 days at Ram Lila Grounds in Delhi without any other restrictions whatever. The fast is presently going on and Hazare has given a deadline by which the Jan Lokpal Law – as drafted by civil society activists should be enacted by Parliament.

The Government is offering negotiations, a senior India Administrative Service bureaucrat from Maharashthra, who has experience in dealing with Hazare in the past, has been brought in as negotiator, but Team Hazare says they are awaiting a proposal from the government and until such a proposal is received, there can be no negotiations.

The Government spokesperson is going on that there are so many opportunities to amend the draft, before committees of parliament, on the floor of the house while it is being debated, etc. But Team Hazare knows that the Congress Party will use its majority in the house to ram through a watered-down Lokpal Bill and is refusing to concede any ground.

Sri Lankan episode

Readers will recall that Sri Lanka also had a very eventful episode in the campaign to eradicate bribery in the early 1970s. A very aggressive senior lawyer from the Department of the Attorney General was appointed as Bribery Commissioner.

 A special court was designated as the Bribery Court and a very strict Judge was installed there.

A very high profile Government medical practitioner was charged before this court and convicted. The case was given reams of publicity and the message went out that the new Bribery Commissioner meant business.

 Public servants became so paranoid that they were reluctant to accept a sealed envelope from a member of the public, lest it was contained cash and the giver was a decoy from the Bribery Commissioners Department!

For some time that type of bribery was lessened. But in time, once the actors moved on, the system fought back, especially after the medical practitioner concerned was acquitted in appeal.

This is why the efforts of the Anna Hazare Team should be of interest to us.

Lokpal Bill

A member of Team Hazare, lawyer Shanthi Bhushan, first introduced a Lokpal Bill in India’s Parliament in 1968. The 4th Lok Sabha passed it in 1969, but the Rajya Sabha, India’s Upper House did not pass it. From 1971 to 2008 the bill was reintroduced nine times, but never passed.

 The Indian political class ensured that nothing with teeth and capacity to really take on and eradicate the curse of bribery would ever see the light of day.

What is so special about Team Hazare’s Jan Lokpal Bill? Consider some of the key features: An all-India institution called the Lokpal will be set up, with a Lokayuktha in each state. Like India’s Supreme Court and the Elections Commission, they will be independent of the Legislative and Executive branches of the Government. All Union Government anti corruption agencies would report to the Lokpal.

The Bill provides that cases filed by the Lokpal will have to be completed in one year.

 Any loss caused to the Government by a corrupt person will be recovered. Transactions with the Government will have to be completed within a prescribed time, and officers who delay processes will be punished. Citizens can petition Lokpal for redress.

Selection of Lokpal and Lokayuktha will be by a special panel of judges, respected citizens and constitutional authorities through a completely transparent and participatory process. There will be no room for the Executive or Legislative branches of Government to interfere.

Proceedings of Lokpal and Lokayuktha will be completely transparent and open to public monitoring and supervision. The Prime Minister’s Office and the Judiciary will also come under the jurisdiction of the Lokpal.

Anti bribery campaigns

In many South Asian states, it is common knowledge that anti bribery campaigns have been stymied and crippled by interference of the executive branch of government.

Police investigative officers attached to Bribery Departments have been moved out en mass, the CEO of the department has been taken out and attached to another branch of government, etc. in the midst of investigations.

Bribery departments have been abused to pursue personal and political vendettas. Such examples are replete all over South Asia.

So the move by India’s civil society activists, to set an independent, transparent and sustainable anti bribery system, is welcome.

Of course the political class is fighting the process tooth and nail. Their first objection is that if civil society wants to legislate, they should contest and enter Parliament as it is Parliament’s privilege to draft and pass laws. The answer to that ridiculous argument is, what option do the people have when Parliament has for 42 years not acted and passed the necessary legislation? Now the politicians say that at the committee stage of Parliament they can include civil society’s requirements, but what is the guarantee?

Anna Hazare may not be reasonable in demanding that he will end his fast only if the Jan Lokpal Draft, as drafted by civil society, is enacted.

But the Hazare Team has held out that they are willing to negotiate with recognised representatives of the Government. Two senior Ministers, Pranab Mukherjee, the Finance Minister and the Law Minister, have been designated and some sort of negotiations seems to be in progress.

Doctors wanted to put Hazare on an intravenous drip, on the ninth day of the fast, but Hazare is resisting. Then news came that the Government of India has conceded on all points except two: Whether the whole bureaucracy should be covered by the Lokpal and whether the same Lokpal should cover the Union Government and the State Governments. The Judiciary will be dealt with under separate legislation, simultaneously enacted.

At the time of writing it is reported that the Prime Minister has agreed that all three – the Government Lokpal draft, the Jan Lokpal Draft and another draft – will be debated in Parliament.

Clear message

Ordinary Indians are sending the political class a clear message: No more Bakshee, big or small. Unfortunately the political class and their minions just don’t seem to get it! Yet. But New Delhi’s Tihar Jail and the Ram Lila Maidan may yet become the equivalent to Tahrir Square in Cairo, just when the Arab Spring has ousted its fourth consecutive dictator and Syria’s Assad is seeing the writing on the wall.

Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and next Syria – the dominoes continue to fall and the Arab Spring is taking its toll.

Does the Indian political class get the message? It may, yet, be an Indian Summer!

The outcome of what happens in India will have repercussions for all of South Asia’s efforts to deal with bribery.

Post script: The Indian political class has blinked; there was a resolution of both houses on Saturday – the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha – approving unanimously Hazare’s demands, including submitting the lower tiers of the bureaucracy to scrutiny, appointing anti corruption ombudsmen in the states and agreeing on a citizen’s charter.

Stunned by the widespread popularity of Hazare’s campaign, which reflected utter and complete contempt for the political class, the politicians closed ranks and collectively threw in the towel. On Sunday Hazare broke fast, accepting a glass of coconut water and bees honey from two children, a Dalit and Moslem.

(The writer is a lawyer, who has over 30 years experience as a CEO in both government and private sectors. He retired from the office of Secretary, Ministry of Finance and currently is the Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Business Development Centre.)

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