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Omission and Commission

Inefficiency can cost the exchequer as much as corruption

Business Standard  |  New Delhi 

The synonyms for the word ‘omission’ are more than for ‘commission’, but the range of interpretations of the word ‘commission’ is wider than for ‘omission’. An omission, says the dictionary, can be an oversight, lapse, slip, error, blunder, faux pas, something deliberately or accidentally left out or not done, something neglected, involving apathy toward or neglect of duty. In Catholic teaching, says a website, an ‘omission’ is a “failure to do something one can and ought to do. If this happens advertently and freely, it is considered a sin.”

In criminal law, according to another website, an omission is a ‘failure to act’, which can amount to an ‘actus reus’, which is Latin for ‘guilty act’. However, it can give rise to liability only when the law ‘imposes a duty to act’ and the defendant is ‘in breach of that duty’. Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-1861) reportedly took the view that a “failure to act does not attract criminal liability. The idea was reflected in the saying, “Thou shalt not kill but needst not strive, officiously, to keep another alive.” Jurists have often taken the view that “a failure to act might be morally indefensible”, and therefore a liability may be imposed when such failure is ‘sufficiently blameworthy’.

The word ‘commission’ has several meanings, but in this context the synonyms used are, ‘order, command, directive, charge, contract, assignment’. The ‘act of committing’ is seen as a positive act undertaken consciously. It is an “authoritative order, charge, or direction; authority granted for a particular action or function.” In assigning blame for governmental decisions that have contributed to a loss of revenues for the government and, in direct consequence, to pecuniary gains to private individuals or firms, one will have to make a distinction between acts of ‘omission’ and ‘commission’. Be it a judicial enquiry, an administrative enquiry or a parliamentary enquiry, any enquiry into a loss of revenue to government and a consequent pecuniary gain has to understand and bring out these distinctions, since every such case need not be a criminal act. Further, in enquiring into decisions that involve a loss of revenue to government or that involve a misuse of the taxpayer's money, one must also make a distinction between the costs imposed by ‘inefficiency’ and those imposed by ‘malfeasance’ or corruption. Inefficiency is not necessarily a criminal act, as corruption is, even if its fiscal implications are the same.

In the case of both the Commonwealth Games and the telecom spectrum scam, it now appears, there are both acts of omission and commission that may have had a similar impact on the public exchequer. Moreover, there are deliberate acts of corruption and deliberate as well as unintended acts of inefficiency that have also imposed a burden on the exchequer. Public discourse must be mindful of these nuances. Everyone involved in the decision making chain should not be tarnished by the same brush. The culpability and liability of those who were merely negligent is less than that of those who were consciously mal-intentioned in their actions.

So also, the guilt by association of those whose acts of omission contributed to the enrichment of those really guilty of acts of commission must be viewed in the correct perspective. All this is not mere sophistry. In a civilised democracy it is necessary to be mindful of such distinctions so that the innocent are not hurt in the process of going after the guilty.

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First Published: Sun, November 21 2010. 00:50 IST