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Samuel Paul: Fighting corruption - Beyond the Lokpal Bill

Samuel Paul 

Laws are necessary, but not sufficient to achieve the goal of corruption control. The key pre-requisites for effectively tackling corruption are a critical mass of political leaders committed to this cause and a significant section of business and that respects the rule of law. While punishing the guilty is important, preventive measures can play a significant role in It is only when these different strands of strategy converge that anti-corruption efforts will achieve lasting results.

The core components of the strategy should consist of electoral reforms, effective use of existing laws that mandate governments to empower people with information, greater transparency in discretionary decision making, and citizen-friendly public services. It is when these components fail to work or are abused that the Lokpal or Lokayukta should intervene.

Of these, electoral reforms, including election financing, have been widely debated, but not acted on. Significant public financing of elections, limits on electoral expenditure, and its disclosure and audit are examples of preventive action that can help control corruption. Public pressure is the only option left to get the government and political parties to adopt these reforms.

Much less attention has been given to the effective use of existing laws to work in a preventive mode. A classic case is the Right to Information Act, of which requires governments to provide a great deal of useful information to the public suo moto. When citizens are aware of their entitlements and rights, they are more likely to demand them and resist corruption. The failure to implement this section is a major reason why people are forced to seek information under RTI that in other countries is readily available to the public.

Transparency in public governance can go a long way in reducing the scope for corruption. Major policy decisions, award of contracts and licences and discretionary decisions that benefit private parties are the contexts in which big scams emerge. It often takes much staying power and the use of the RTI sledgehammer to crack this nut. Since these are matters of public interest, should not the information be disclosed to the public without anyone asking for it?

It is difficult to eliminate discretion in decision making. But surely, such decisions could be disclosed to the public, at least on websites, to begin with. The temptation to engage in corrupt and unfair deals can be prevented by shedding the sunlight of disclosure on all such cases.

The widespread public rage against corruption is to a large extent driven by what citizens experience in their day-to-day interactions with governments and their agencies. The answer to this problem lies in the reform of public service delivery at all levels of government. Some shrug off this phenomenon as petty corruption, while others attribute it to the failure of a few officials and politicians. This is a big mistake as it reflects a major systemic failure of the state for which the blame should be put at the door of those at the top. It is important, therefore, to start with a proper diagnosis of the problem.

Four asymmetries (imbalances) exist in the public service arena that breed corruption and hence need to be corrected. First, there is the asymmetry of information that makes it difficult for citizens to know what they should do to access services, and what they are entitled to once they gain access. Next, there is the asymmetry of contract that results in the one-sided agreement a citizen must enter into with the service provider. The citizen cannot hold the provider accountable for time deadlines, quality and standards of service.

The third is the asymmetry of redress. The government can terminate a service or penalise the citizen if he fails to comply with the rules. But the government does not provide the latter with a credible grievance redress mechanism to respond to his/her complaints. Finally, there is the asymmetry of voice. The government has control over its services and makes the rules. But the vast majority of people have no way to give their feedback on the services they receive or are denied.

These asymmetries force some citizens to use middlemen or people of influence to get their work done. Others take the option of paying a bribe and colluding with officials. Some may give up and suffer. Is it any surprise that public anger and cynicism against the state grow under these conditions? This diagnosis points to the remedies required for improving public services and reducing corruption. Empowering people with the information they need about their entitlements, rights and remedies is the first step. The government has taken some halting steps in this direction, but needs to do much more. A more balanced and transparent contract between citizens and service providers is the next step. The government has to allocate more resources and install more robust systems if this remedy is to work.

Putting in place effective grievance redress mechanisms, using new technologies where appropriate, is the third requirement. Several experiments are under way in this arena. Replication of the best among these on a large scale is the obvious answer. Finally, all governments and their service providers must periodically gather systematic feedback from citizens on their services and programmes, and use the findings to continuously improve their quality and reduce corruption. Elimination of the asymmetries discussed above can help prevent corruption, and enable citizens to demand greater public accountability. A Lokpal cannot be a substitute for these reforms.

The author is founder, Public Affairs Centre, Bangalore, and co-author of the book, Corruption in India: Agenda for Action

First Published: Sun, May 15 2011. 00:21 IST