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Just one law won’t do it

Without reforms that transfer the balance of power from officials to citizens,no Lokpal will end corruption.

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The country owes a debt of gratitude to Team Anna for succeeding in channelling popular anger against corruption into a determined movement to seek institutional measures to cleanse our politics of the cancer of corruption. However,we would do well to recognise that no one institution,no one law can put an end to India’s deeply entrenched culture of extortion,bribery and tyranny. That task requires looking at and reforming each department of the government — each sarkari institution that is engaged in public dealings,or assigned the responsibility of providing public services,or constructing civic infrastructure; and the identification of rules,regulations and laws that bestow arbitrary power to government functionaries or politicians which enable them to deny citizens their rightful due without facing any consequences.

For example,municipal officials all over India systematically fleece citizens by sending highly inflated house tax bills. I recall that several years ago,one of my neighbours,let us call him Mr X,received a house tax bill of Rs 1.65 lakh for a small,two-bedroom flat in South Delhi. In sheer panic,he approached a local political worker who claimed “good connections” with municipal officials. This man then went and brokered a deal with the concerned babus. Mr X was asked to pay Rs 25,000 in order to get the 1.65-lakh demand reduced to Rs 7,000 per year. He accepted the deal gladly because it appeared to him as if he was receiving a big favour,even though the falsely inflated bill was actually just a device to frighten him into paying a bribe. This was in fact standard practice; virtually every house-owner was subjected to this form of blackmail because the rules governing house tax rates were totally opaque,with officials routinely getting away with demanding arbitrary amounts as payoffs because they have the power to send out bogus bills and seal the property,with the victim left fighting never-ending court battles.

This citadel of corruption collapsed in one stroke when,following the example of Ahmedabad,Patna and Bangalore,the Municipal Corporation of Delhi also reformed its mode of property tax calculation and collection in 2004,by introducing a self-assessment scheme with clearly defined parameters for calculating rates for different categories of property,both commercial and residential,depending on the covered area. A detailed description of how to calculate the tax due on each property in different areas of Delhi — with a higher tax rate for high-priced properties and lower rates for poorer colonies — has been put on the publicly viewable website. Today one can pay this objectively calculated property tax in Delhi through the MCD’s online payment portal,or through any number of banks. It leaves little scope for extortion. In fact,Mr. X today pays no more than Rs 3,800 in tax on the same property for which he was sent the Rs 1.65 lakh bill.

Another example: Manushi has succeeded in bringing about a dramatic fall in bribes and harassment for cycle-rickshaw owners because,in response to Manushi’s petition challenging arbitrary,bribe-friendly rules and regulations for plying rickshaws,the Delhi high court struck them down as unconstitutional in March 2010. Here is a small sample of those absurd regulations:

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1) Plying a rickshaw without an owner’s and a puller’s licence is illegal — but,unlike for motor vehicles,one cannot get a licence on demand. People are kept waiting for years after applying for a puller’s or owner’s licence,while municipal officials are not required to give any explanation for denying rickshaw licences. However,officials have the power to confiscate and destroy a rickshaw operating without these two licences.

2) While a person is entitled to own as many cars,trucks or aeroplanes as they want and can afford,it was illegal to own more than one rickshaw. A person owning multiple vehicles was liable to having his/her vehicles confiscated and destroyed.

3) A person owning a taxi or bus may hire whoever she likes to ply that vehicle or give it out on rent. But renting out a rickshaw invites confiscation and destruction of the vehicle. This despite the fact that the vast majority of pullers are seasonal migrants who prefer to rent their cycle-rickshaws,so that they are free to visit their villages as and when necessary,without having to worry about their vehicles being stolen or destroyed while they are away.

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Thanks to such vicious laws,Delhi’s rickshaw-owners and pullers ended up in a web of illegality,paying over Rs 350 crore a year in bribes to police and municipal officials. As soon as these absurd regulations were declared unconstitutional and confiscation was forbidden by law,no owner was willing to pay hafta — even though the new law drafted to liberalise the process for owning and pulling a rickshaw has yet to be enacted.

However,we  have failed to bring similar relief to street vendors,who are similarly targeted by rent-seeking mafias even though new fanciful policies have been announced for them,because officialdom retains the arbitrary power to deny them licences.  

Unlike the high courts and the Supreme Court,the Lokpal,even in its most “undiluted” form,will not have the power to strike down patently unjust laws. Therefore,it will have to go by the existing laws and regulations which leave citizens totally at the mercy of officialdom.

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The Lokpal can at best play the role that antibiotics do when our bodies catch an infection. But antibiotics work only if delivered in emergencies,and in judicious doses; an overdose can act as a toxin,or even kill the patient. Anti-corruption institutions work only if carefully crafted systems are put in place that shift the balance of power in favour of citizens,providing them powers to demand transparency and accountability.  

The author is a professor at CSDS,Delhi,and the founder-editor of ‘Manushi’

First published on: 26-08-2011 at 00:12 IST
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