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Preventing corruption is more effective than treating it

Written by Manish Sabharwal | Published: August 22, 2011 2:40:42 am

Every doctor knows that prevention is better than cure. In fact,the most talented doctors worry deeply about iatrogenic risks — the problems created by the treatment they prescribe — because deep inside they agree with Voltaire who said,“Doctors prescribe medicines of which they know little,to cure diseases of which they know less,in human beings of whom they know nothing.” Essentially intellectual humility is the key to being an effective writer of prescriptions.

In a country of a billion people,it is not surprising to have a billion different views on the justness,appropriateness and effectiveness of the current protests in Delhi to cure corruption. Only a fool would question the justness of a protest against corruption in India. Since I am no fool,I agree with the justness of their cause. But I also disagree deeply with their means and strategy. Their current form of protest is inappropriate because the protesters should form a political party and stand for elections. And their current strategy to combat corruption will be ineffective because of the focus on treating corruption rather than preventing it. In other words,it is the wrong thing for the right reason.

Corruption is a cancer that corrodes society,meritocracy and efficiency and eradicating it must be an important national priority. This needs answering important questions. Where does corruption come from? Is corruption a genetic problem among Indians? Or is it a child of shortages where there is not enough for everyone? Is it pervasive because we don’t pay our civil servants well? Or is it because we do not hand out the death sentence to public officials convicted of corruption as China? Is corruption higher as a percentage of the Indian economy in 2011 than it was in 1981? Is the absolute rupee amount of corruption in India higher than the converted dollar amount in advanced economies? Does corruption have something to do with how we finance our elections? Is India’s growth forcing politicians to shift from being roving bandits (give me whatever you have since I am never going to come back) to stationary thieves (I need 10 per cent of your income but now tell me how to grow your income)? Does shifting from retail to wholesale corruption align development and politics? Is the increased surfacing and exposure of corruption an inevitable concomitant of our reform journey?

Corruption arises from bad public policy and poor policy plumbing rather than bad policing. Eliminating it hardly lies in legislation that creates an unaccountable army of inspectors with abnormal powers. Who will inspect these inspectors? Solutions lie in “drying the swamp” — that is,eliminating the sources of corruption. Wholesale corruption — crony capitalism — arises largely from differences between real and contracted values and is found mostly in land,natural resources,government contracting and education. Sunshine is the best disinfectant so this needs fixing procurement,going live with the national GST (Goods and Service Tax),increasing technology in direct and indirect tax enforcement,and much else. Reducing retail corruption needs creating competition and using technology plumbing — like Aadhar — to change the citizen interface with government. Corruption is often only possible if both politicians and bureaucrats collude or one holds their nose and looks the other way. The different incentives and DNA of civil servants and politicians (selection,tenure,election cycle,constituency,prestige,etc) mean that we can rupture the current incest by reinforcing the backbone of our bureaucracy by re-engineering how we appoint,transfer or promote our civil servants at Central and state governments. Most importantly,we need to end the lie that almost every member of Parliament tells to the Election Commission when they enter Parliament about their total election spending being under Rs 25 lakh. Campaign finance is a complex subject in any country but in India this issue cannot be ignored because of the current arms race in election spending creating an adverse selection among candidates considered by political parties. A combination of state funding,raising outdated caps and greater transparency on contributions could be small start.

Basically the fight against corruption needs to make the shift that science made from classical physics (discrete systems,simple cause and effect) to quantum physics (everything is inter-related,small changes at source have amplified system-wide effects). Finally,and probably most importantly,the current corruption protests in Delhi must recognise that the current George Bush posturing — you are with me or against me — is unfair,unhelpful and unnecessary. People who disagree with many provisions of the civil society version of the bill do not necessarily condone or indulge in corruption. As Einstein said,make things as simple as possible,not simpler.

In the last few years the government appointed National Advisory Council (NAC) unleashed a regime of “Rights” on India with a thought world not very different from the current protesters in Delhi; impatient,intellectually certain,more interested in big ideas than operational details,and disrespectful of government intentions and capabilities. Both are right and wrong. They are right because India erred gravely in 1991 by defining reforms as purely economic. We must broaden our definition of reforms to include procurement,governance,institutions and execution because reforms are not about goofy rich guys buying BMW’s but putting poverty in the museum it belongs. But they are wrong because the very different destinies of India and Pakistan born on the same night are the consequences of 30 lakh people in India winning an election of some kind. A government by the people,for the people,and of the people necessarily needs elections,politicians,and a parliament. The members of NAC and current protesters must stand for elections. Whether they win or lose,they will learn — like Obama,Sarkozy and Mario Cumo — that you campaign in poetry but govern in prose.

The author is Chairman,Teamlease Services,

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