The recent spate of bank scams has brought the top management of many banks ~ both private and public ~ into the crosshairs of investigative agencies.

During the earlier dispensation, a number of top civil servants and politicians were being investigated in the 2G, CWG, Coalgate and sundry other scams.

However, a point to be noted is that investigative agencies themselves are also not above board with two recently retired CBI heads being investigated for corruption.

For various reasons, after trial, most of the accused have walked scot free but the public is feeling disenchanted and its confidence in the Government machinery is at an all-time low.

At the time of demonetisation, to facilitate tax evasion, poor people, for a consideration, deposited thousands of crores of black money in their Jan Dhan accounts.

So, the romantic notion that the poor are honest while the rich are corrupt does not hold true in India. It would seem that corruption has become the common denominator of our country which has satyameva jayate (truth always triumphs) as its motto.

As a pernicious fallout of widespread corruption, people have accepted corruption in public life as a fait accompli. People no longer get worked up about corruption.

Most businesses make a provision for corruption while budgeting their expenses. No stigma is attached to corruption; leaders accused of massive corruption are comfortably re-elected.

Many young men enter public life as politicians or civil servants only with an aim of making easy money. Needless to say, this does not augur well for us as a nation.

As US Vice President Joe Biden remarked: “Corruption is a cancer: a cancer that eats away at a citizen’s faith in democracy, diminishes the instinct for innovation and creativity; already-tight national budgets, crowding out important national investments. It wastes the talent of entire generations. It scares away investments and jobs.”

The deleterious effects of unbridled corruption now haunt us; respected institutions are failing, even top politicians and top civil servants have no credibility in the public eye. Routine administrative tasks have become difficult because suspecting corruption, the public rarely cooperates with the Government.

Most of the well-intentioned programmes to benefit the poor fail because resources are eaten away by intermediaries or some of the beneficiaries, who corner all the funds. No wonder, real and substantial progress has eluded us all these years.

Prior to independence, it suited our colonial masters to have a monolithic, faceless and unaccountable administration. Unfortunately, even today these qualities define the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy and the political executive, which operates through the bureaucracy, use these attributes to do whatever suits them.

Files, on which decisions are taken, carry the opinion of several layers of officers making no one clearly accountable for any decision. It is quite another matter that almost all cases are pre-decided; the lowest functionary generally records a summary of the case and an opinion which is approved right till the top. Such consensual decisions are sufficient to answer any inconvenient questions that may arise later on.

The terms of service of the bureaucracy are contained in the Central Civil Services (Classification, Control and Appeal) Rules (CCS(CCA) Rules), which akin to criminal jurisprudence, presumes innocence until guilt is proved beyond a shadow of doubt.

Consequently, departmental proceedings in corruption cases are so convoluted and time consuming that very few cases reach their logical conclusion. Successive governments proclaim zero tolerance for corruption but with the years, like Hydra’s heads corruption has only increased.

The much vaunted Lokpal is nowhere on the horizon. Thinking rationally, no Government would like to have a powerful anti-corruption watchdog breathing down its neck.

Making an educated guess, if and when a Lokpal is appointed, it would be a truncated version of the original, with most of its powers having been taken away ~ legislatively or administratively.

So while we wait for a Hercules to kill the multi-headed Hydra of corruption, it makes sense to try a simple remedy to reduce corruption. As noted earlier, inquiries in corruption cases drag on with everyone trying to put the blame on everyone else.

The standard defence in most cases is that “proper procedure was followed”; which almost always succeeds because in our jurisprudence, form is more important than substance.

Suppose, we change the rules to the extent that once corruption is established then all bureaucrats involved would be summarily dismissed without retirement benefits and the private party involved would have to reimburse the monetary value of the advantage gained through corruption.

This would invite protest because the concept of accountability is anathema to most government employees, but we have to remember that accountability is a sine qua non for a performing bureaucracy.

The Emergency is rightly reviled for many appalling instances of abuse of power; but the Emergency also revealed a hitherto unknown aspect of the general character of public servants who, during the Emergency, would work without malingering and would routinely do what was expected of them.

There was full attendance in offices at 10 am and trains ran on time ~ feats not achieved till today despite biometric attendance and the works. This has a valuable lesson for the present; the Government can perform well only if the fear of God was put in its employees.

On the downside, for the Government, enforcing accountability would anger government employees who conduct all kinds of elections and are a significant vote-bank in their own right.

However, if the Government is serious about its performance and its resolve to root out corruption, bitter medicine has to be administered sooner than later.

An open public debate can be initiated on this issue; most probably public sentiment would force government employees to see reason.

Till now, we have had seven Central Pay Commissions, which have improved the service conditions of employees beyond recognition but there has been no corresponding increase in their responsibilities.

The lowest paid government employee draws a pay of Rs 25,000 per month ~ which is more than the first pay drawn by most white collar employees in the private sector.

Except at the very top, pay-scales of the Government are often better than their counterparts in private service, which suggests that lack of any reward for honesty and lack of any punishment for dishonesty rather than low pay is the reason for the endemic corruption in Government.

In addition to umpteen committees, we had two Administrative Reforms Commissions constituted by illustrious personalities to suggest measures to promote efficiency and integrity in public services.

Mounds of paper were consumed in voluminous and learned reports but there was no change on the ground because the recommendations could not be implemented in their entirety.

It would definitely be better if we take simple but effective steps like dismissing the identified corrupt employees instead of looking up to bureaucrats to reform a system which they have ruined over the years. Let us not waste time; the time to act against corruption is now. If we wait, it would be an interminable wait for Godot.

The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner of Income-Tax