It is perhaps too early to gauge the full impact of the proposed inclusion of the lower bureaucracy under the Lok Pal. Civil servants have not yet fully internalised what the expanded scope of the Lok Pal could mean for them.
Most importantly, there are legal questions. What would now be the scope of the current law on prevention of corruption by officers of the government and public bodies including public sector undertakings? Will it overlap with the proposed law on the Lok Pal? Finally, if the Lok Pal law covers the lower bureaucracy as well, would it mean the end of the Prevention of Corruption Act or would it reduce its efficacy to a level that makes it irrelevant?
Civil servants would like the government to resolve these issues even as the Parliamentary Standing Committee begins its examination of the Lok Pal Bill after taking on board Parliament’s resolution on corruption. Civil servants are likely to have another area of concern. This may arise from Anna Hazare’s statement on Saturday. “We have won only half the battle,” he said soon after Parliament adopted the resolution that incorporated all the three suggestions made by his team — inclusion of the lower bureaucracy under the Lok Pal, a central law for creating Lokayuktas in states and a citizen’s charter for government departments providing public service.
What did Hazare mean when he said only half the battle was won? What is the half that remains to be won? Presumably, the reference was to Parliament’s passing the legislation for a Lok Pal that contained all the features proposed by the Hazare team. However, believing that passing the Lok Pal legislation alone will ensure victory in the battle against corruption is naive and tantamount to waiting for Godot.
In other words, this is not the time for the government and civil servants to wait for the magic wand of the Lok Pal to arrive to weed out corruption. Institutions are important, but they alone cannot tackle as pervasive and widespread a disease like corruption. You need accompanying measures with an institution like the Lok Pal to check malpractices and misuse of power. As many civil servants correctly would like to believe, the proposed institution of the Lok Pal is comparable to a physician who usually heals the body after disease has struck. However, prevention is always better than cure.
The Lok Pal may provide the cure, but there is no reason the government should not take advance steps to prevent the disease. Good governance requires that healthcare through hygiene and provision of nutritious food is as important, if not more, to prevent the disease. The approach of the civil society in India is rooted in the belief that the government, its various arms, the political parties and civil servants are incapable of creating enabling conditions that do not allow corruption in the first place — hence the need for a powerful regulatory body like the Lok Pal.
This may be true but the challenge for civil servants in particular now is to come up with a series of changes in procedures of key economic regulations that eliminate the scope for corruption in the delivery of government services. Both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, in their separate addresses in Parliament last week, touched upon some of these issues. They underlined the need for simplifying rules and procedures to make the common man’s life easier and hassle-free.
Mukherjee hit the nail on the head when he talked about the use of an electronic payment system for releasing refunds to taxpayers. The finance minister has understood the crux of the problem. Indeed, the government can eliminate most cases of petty corruption by removing human contact at the time of service delivery. Tax refunds could be a source of petty and illegal gratification for some dishonest officers as long as they had to deliver or send a physical cheque to the taxpayer. Now, with an electronic system of payment of such refunds into the bank accounts of the taxpayer, the finance ministry has eliminated such scope for corruption.
Similarly, as Mukherjee pointed out in his address, the advent of the unique identity numbers for people, disbursement of funds or financial entitlements under various schemes would eliminate or substantially reduce the leakage seen in the past several years. The point is technology can work wonders in eliminating corruption. Imagine getting your building plans approved through an electronic window or paying your house tax online or getting the driving licence renewed on the basis of declarations and self-certification posted on the relevant government department’s website. Citizens will benefit and corruption will be on the wane.
Civil society will, however, still clamour for the Lok Pal and there should be no dispute over the need for such a body. However, civil servants now have the opportunity to use technology and transparent procedures in a wide range of public services and reduce the scope for corruption. That will be a win-win situation for the government, civil servants and citizens. Additionally, it should reduce the burden of huge expectations from the Lok Pal.