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How not to fight corruption

Administrative reform should be AAP’s focus, not sting operations.

Published:January 30, 2014 2:26 am

An anti-corruption campaign has to identify corruption-prone sectors, analyse factors that enable it and eliminate them. An anti-corruption campaign has to identify corruption-prone sectors, analyse factors that enable it and eliminate them.

Administrative reform should be AAP’s focus, not sting operations.

By campaigning on an anti-corruption plank and vowing to cleanse government, the AAP struck a chord with the middle class and youth. But the promise to deliver corruption-free governance must be based on an appreciation of the root causes of corruption. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s approach to the problem has been impulsive at best.

Kejriwal has spent more than a decade in government service. He should know how and why corruption exists. He must be aware of former central vigilance commissioner N.Vittal’s tireless advocacy for adopting preventive measures and improving systems to tackle corruption. In this context, it’s unfortunate that after taking oath as CM, Kejriwal told people not to refuse paying a bribe when it is demanded, but to encourage the demand so that the bribe-seeker can be caught in the act. For him, the solution to a corruption-free government lies in catching officials by entrapment rather than removing the root cause of the malaise.

Tackling corruption by encouraging people to conduct stings may be a thrilling prospect for some. The recent suspension and transfer of some Delhi Jal Board officials after a sting operation by a news channel may have some impact. But officials who are prone to corruption will not vanish just because of stings. They will lie low till the air clears and ultimately resurface if the system continues to allow them to make money.

Before we examine the desirability of sting operations, it’s worth understanding the procedures that are followed by anti-corruption bureaus (ACBs), vigilance bureaus and the CBI in “trap” cases. The ACBs subject complaints about officials demanding bribes to verification processes. It’s only after the authenticity of the complaint has been established that the process for laying the trap is initiated. Even though the law does not demand it, bureaus insist on verification to ensure that unscrupulous complainants do not misuse the anti-corruption machinery to settle personal scores. These days, bureaus use forensic analysis of voice samples, authentication of video recording etc to corroborate evidence.

In contrast, sting operations presuppose that the entire range of issues for which people approach government is solvable within the existing framework of rules. Persons advocating stings to counter corruption are oblivious to the fact that for every bribe taker there is a giver. Also, a sting is entrapment and its legality is still nebulous. There are several doubts about their admissibility as evidence. This being the case, the vigilance department of the police will have to further investigate stings carried out by members of the public, which will only result in a waste of man hours and resources. In fact, courts have frowned upon “chance traps” laid by ACBs without establishing the demand for a bribe.

Experience shows that often bribe givers don’t hesitate in bribing to get their work done, even when their case does not comply with the rules. Examples of renovations that violate rules and paying “brokerage charges” to “agents” at regional transport offices or passport offices are rife. This brokerage — paid entirely in cash without a receipt — is shared by agents with officials in order to “expedite” work. Shouldn’t Kejriwal persuade people not to pay such agents for these “services”? Shouldn’t he devise ways to make official transactions and interactions hassle free and transparent? People have become so cynical that they are complicit in this arrangement and consider it convenient because they feel government will never simplify procedures. To be fair to people, when one considers the transaction costs — starting from making a complaint to the ACB to the completion of the trial — one may feel that it’s far more sensible to part with some money than to go through the rigmarole. But the procedure is no different when a sting is followed up with an investigation. In fact, the onus of authenticating the recorded evidence will be on the person who conducted the sting. Add to this the uncertainty of the legal admissibility of the evidence and the whole exercise may turn out to be a damp squib.

Stings may create a false sense of cleansing for a short time. But they constitute entrapment and do not obey the rule of law. They may result in the suspension of the involved officials, who may have to be reinstated after some time as such evidence is seldom infallible. Further, sting operations are likely to create an atmosphere of mistrust.

We have to acknowledge that widespread corruption is a direct result of multiple failures in governance. A sustained anti-corruption campaign has to identify corruption-prone sectors, analyse the factors that enable corruption and eliminate them through systemic changes. Legal provisions, however stringent, cannot substitute for good business processes, which govern transactions. Kejriwal would do well to encourage his departmental heads to suggest ways to simplify procedures to minimise corruption, and implement them. Otherwise, he will miss the opportunity to reform governance and present himself as different from the rest.

The writer is a former director general of police, Maharashtra

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