The situation in Maharashtra is getting ‘curiouser and curiouser.’ Since an explosive-laden SUV was discovered near the residence of a top industrialist, there have been innumerable twists in the tale, many of which even Dame Agatha Christie could not have foreseen. Right thinking citizens have been scandalised by events suggesting that Mumbai Police was being used to collect hafta for the Home Minister. The situation has turned so murky that even top cop, Julio Ribeiro, who never flinched from facing extremists’ bullets, and who post-retirement, never hesitated to call a spade a spade, declined to get involved. Twitterati, as is their wont, gleefully assassinated the character and antecedents of the dramatis personae.
Disregarding the personalities involved in the imbroglio, an alarming picture of institutionalised corruption emerges, where the primary purpose of a Government department appears to have been reduced to the collection of illegal gratification for a politician. The somnolence of watchdogs like the Lokpal, Lokayukta, CVC and CBI, not to mention State-level anti-corruption agencies, makes one wonder whether these high-powered bodies were created solely to tackle stray cases of individual corruption.
True, the Government has tried to harness technology to reduce corruption but results are at best, mixed. Technological solutions, aimed at eliminating discretion available to Government employees, have led to over-centralisation, which has hamstrung bureaucratic initiative at the operational level, that is often required to deal with unforeseen problems, like Aadhaar beneficiaries not getting access to subsidised food grains for technical reasons.
The jury is still out on the biggest such initiative of the Government, the faceless assessment and appeal system of the Income- tax Department. Rumblings of protests by tax officials and tax professionals have been heard, which may well be attributable to the discomfort felt on the loss of a familiar environment. Only time will tell whether the faceless scheme empowers taxpayers, and simultaneously, enhances revenue collection.
Entrenched corruption in Government offices flourishes because Government employees across departments are programmed to say ‘no’ to all requests by the public. Superiors ask no question about the requests that were denied but ask for justification for the requests that were allowed. Consequently, members of the public are burdened with the onerous task of persuading the bureaucrat to change the automatic ‘no’ to a ‘yes.’ Additionally, bureaucrats are taught to instinctively disbelieve whatever evidence or explanation a member of the public may offer. Enormous time and effort are required to get a simple job done in the atmosphere of hostility and distrust prevailing in Government offices. Consequently, a heterogenous variety of ‘consultants,’ a euphemism for touts, have mushroomed, to facilitate Government related work. Thus, we have ‘RTO consultants’ who would get your licence for you, ‘passport consultants’ who would help you in getting a passport. At a higher level, certain individuals facilitate transfers and postings, and award of contracts, in Government departments. A person in the know, attributed the largescale eruption of scandals in UPA-2 to the tendency of ministers and officers to operate without middlemen. Corruption can be reined in to a large extent, if in routine matters, Government employees are reprogrammed to trust fellow citizens and accede to reasonable requests. Easing of passport procedures, that has reduced frustration and delay for passport applicants, with no commensurate increase in passport frauds, has several valuable lessons for government functioning. Firstly, the public is generally truthful and secondly, procedures can be devised to catch and deal with people taking unconscionable advantage of the system.
Proper Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), framed in line with the new technologically enabled environment, would go a long way to reduce systemic corruption because both the public and Government functionaries would know what is required of them for completion of a certain transaction. Then, timelines could be set for all dealings with the Government. Purchase of Rafale fighter aircraft is an example of all that is wrong with the Government purchase process. This aircraft, of 1998 vintage, entered the Indian Air Force in 2020, because of a protracted negotiation process, which was insufficient to ward off allegations of corruption and irregularities.
The Indian Army is not able to modernise because of the long interval between the time a need is felt for a particular armament to the time of delivery of that armament. No wonder, at the time of the recent Chinese incursion, we had to acquire various hardware under emergency purchase procedures. A simple method to save time and cost would be to prescribe timelines for all stages of the purchase process i.e., search, evaluation, negotiation and delivery. The scope for corruption in civil projects, that drag on for years with cost overruns could be drastically reduced should we abridge the timeline of all civil projects to one year. Such a timeline is not impossible, if, we take a cue from our bête noir China, which built a 1,500-room hospital for Covid-19 patients in five days.
Systemic corruption is difficult to control because of the involvement of powerful people. The Vohra Committee Report (1993) had noted the nexus between criminals, politicians and Government functionaries and the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (2007) had commented upon the excessive power in the hands of police that was being abused by the political executive to unduly influence police personnel for serving personal and political interests.
A startling revelation in the Maharashtra imbroglio is contained in the affidavit of the former Mumbai Police Commissioner before the Supreme Court, that alleges the Home Minister was seeking a of Rs100 crores, through some junior level police officials. The plight of conscientious senior police officers who have to countenance and abet such illegal acts, can well be imagined.
Police reforms, that would shield the police force from political interference and invest senior officers with enough control over their subordinates are absolutely necessary. However, politicians, when in power, are averse to any reform in the police. A number of commissions and committees have been set up to review the functioning of the police, but to little avail.
The National Police Commission (NPC) submitted 8 reports between 1977-1981, suggesting wide-ranging reforms in the existing police set-up and also a Model Police Act but none of the major recommendations of the NPC, were adopted by any Government. Inaction of the Government on NPC reports, till 1996, prompted filing of a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court (Prakash Singh Vs. Union of India) asking the Supreme Court to direct all Governments to implement the NPC recommendations.
The Supreme Court, in 2006, directed the Central Government to set up a State Security Commission which would lay down the broad policies and give directions for the performance of preventive tasks by the police. State Governments were directed to set up Police Establishment Boards to decide upon transfers, postings, promotions and other service-related matters of police officers and men and a Police Complaints Authority at the District and State levels, to inquire into allegations of serious misconduct by police personnel.
The Supreme Court also formed the Soli Sorabjee Committee that drafted a Model Police Act. Later on, in 2000, the Ministry of Home Affairs set up the Padmanabhaiah Committee to examine the future requirements of the police. Subsequently, the Malimath Committee on Reforms of the Criminal Justice System was set up in 2003.
A review of the status of implementation of reformatory directions contained in various Court orders, and recommendations of various Committees and Commissions reveals a sorry picture. None of the proposed reforms has been implemented at the ground level, probably because reforms would reduce the stranglehold of the political executive on the police. Not surprisingly, bypassing Supreme Court directions, 17 States have passed laws to legitimize the existing status quo that had drawn the Supreme Court’s ire, while the remaining States have merely passed executive orders to implement piecemeal reforms. Even the Central Government is yet to pass the Delhi Police Bill. An aversion to reform guarantees the proliferation of systemic and institutional corruption, with law-abiding citizens perpetually being at the receiving end. Anti-corruption agencies, again under political compulsion, have not taken any action to limit institutional corruption.
Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives has tellingly commented on the futility of addressing only individual instances of corruption: “Until someone is prepared to lay out the systemic problem, we will simply go through cycles of finding corruption, finding a scapegoat, eliminating the scapegoat, and relaxing until we find the next scandal.”