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Public memory is long. The government’s lackadaisical attitude towards dealing with corruption is a mistake

Written by PCSHARMA | Published: April 13, 2012 3:54 am

Public memory is long. The government’s lackadaisical attitude towards dealing with corruption is a mistake

The scandals of the last decade,but more importantly of the recent past,have revealed a certain incapacity to act. Depressing responses like,“the matter is being looked into”,“commissions are being set up” and “the law will take its course” have been dulled by overuse. When institutions like the CAG and statutory bodies like Lokayuktas are revealing pervasive corruption,such phraseology betrays an unwillingness to act promptly,and also has the effect of trivialising the exposé and rubbishing institutions.

Constitutional and criminal law is so well conceived and so precisely drafted that it would never fail us if those charged with enforcing it act with grit and commitment. The Criminal Procedure Code is proof by itself that if investigations are conducted according to its letter and spirit,the course of law will be unhindered. The Indian Evidence Act would serve eminently well if applied objectively,and the Indian Penal Code leaves nothing for the law enforcers to imagine as to what constitutes a criminal offence.

Of course,special laws are needed to tackle special situations,but these should be thought of only if the existing laws have been proved redundant. After all,the cases relating to the 2G scam and the Commonwealth Games,the ongoing CBI investigation into the NRHM scam registered in the recent past,among others,were investigated and later tried under the existing laws just mentioned. It is a folly to assume that the existing legal framework cannot be used to fight corruption.

Each time a scam of monstrous proportions surfaces,the most predictable reaction is to decrease its intensity by declaring that such scams happened during previous regimes as well. This is dangerous logic that provides perverse justification for graft. It forgets that people expect each incumbent entity to perform better than its previous dispensation. This ding-dong between the present and past blights the future.

The Lokpal bill,needed to combat pervasive corruption,especially in high places,started its long journey in 1969,but was not allowed to move forward due to official inertia. Lack of will,the absence of public protest and varying postures adopted by media made clear thinking almost impossible. But just because the bill has not been passed,and the public protest has lost some of its intensity,it would be suicidal to assume that protests against corruption have died down and lost their efficacy. The cause still reverberates. Truth has a tendency to hit back and,even belatedly,its attack may be lethal.

The Mundhra scam,the Dharam Teja scandal,the Sukh Ram case and the Telgi scandal are some success stories. This should encourage public discourse; these examples are proof that the situation can still be redeemed and that ever-expanding cynicism can be checked. There are still celebrated examples of public functionaries who conduct themselves with integrity. Acknowledging their contribution would be an act of faith. However,those charged with the duties of governance owe it to the people to not take shelter under such escapist explanations as “corruption is a worldwide phenomenon”.

Our courts,no doubt,have the strength and will to act,but action without speed is doomed. A functioning judiciary is the guarantor of fairness and a powerful weapon against corruption. The slow pace of trials runs counter to the judicial verdict delivered in the Maneka Gandhi case that trials should be fair,speedy and equitable. No one can question the judiciary’s powers,but it is fair to expect that convictions will be awarded in direct proportion to the gravity of offences committed. Investigation is necessary to enforce the judicial principle of crime and punishment. But investigations into individual cases of corruption suffer from a lack of the broad sweep needed to overhaul the corrupt systems. This task is better left to the institutions — both constitutional as well as statutory — and,of course,the government. The criminal justice system takes its first step forward when investigations are launched promptly. If these are done professionally and by using new forensic skills,justice will be delivered speedily. Investigations in some cases of disproportionate assets have floundered on account of a combination of factors,primarily because of a flawed investigation,political pressure to bend the law,and the tardy pace of trials.

Citizens are often unaware of their rights,but after several negative experiences,they are slowly waking up. Living under the impression that public memory is short is a death wish. Trivialising the significance of institutions is an act of unpardonable self-delusion. And let us not forget that political thought is expedient and bureaucratic explanations are often self-serving; together they mix well with the bane of the fight against corruption.

The writer is a member of the National Human Rights Commission

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