The prime minister and the finance minister want Section 13 of the Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA) to be changed so that decision-making in government can be speeded up. Top bureaucrats, at a meeting with the PM, complained that the fear of prosecution is hampering decision-making, even when “public interest” is involved. This may also be in the context of the summons to former PM Manmohan Singh and the former coal secretary, P.C. Parakh, in the “Coalgate” scam.
The finance minister has said that “there can honestly be two different opinions or there can be honest errors”. But, can dishonest/ corrupt decisions not be passed off as “different opinions” or “honest errors”? There is a need to distinguish between honest and dishonest decisions and correct and incorrect ones. Can one decipher the intention of a decision-maker whether it was honest or dishonest? Until caught, everyone claims to be honest.
Whether a decision is correct or incorrect is difficult to decide. And who decides? “Public interest” may be the yardstick for doing so, but that is also not easy. What may be correct in the short run may turn out to be a problem in the long run. For instance, aiming for faster economic growth at the expense of the environment.
Even if a decision is correct, however defined, it may be taken for a consideration and, therefore, dishonest. By all counts, choosing the Bofors gun was a good decision but pay-offs were made as revealed by the Swedish authorities.
Cases where decisions are taken against the public interest (hence incorrect) for a consideration are both dishonest and incorrect. For instance, the 2G spectrum allocation in 2008. Most scams belong to this category.
There may be incorrect decisions where no pay-off was made. For instance, the appointment of generals as the heads of institutions of higher learning to discipline campuses. No pay-off may be involved, but it is a mistake in the long run, since it undermines the autonomy crucial to new knowledge generation, the very purpose of higher education. The promulgation of the land acquisition ordinances by the NDA may not involve any pay-off. But doing away with social impact assessment or the need for consent of the local population before acquiring land could turn out to be a mistake even if it leads to development of the area in the short run.
So, one cannot say that correct decisions are honest and incorrect decisions are dishonest. There is a need to distinguish between honest or dishonest and correct or incorrect decisions.
In the present vitiated environment, with rampant corruption, government decisions are suspect as they routinely involve pay-offs. Delhi has building and zoning by-laws, which are flagrantly violated. The authorities collect hafta and allow encroachment to continue. “Initiative” is often defined as the ability to bend rules.
How many of the top bureaucrats have stood up for their fellow officer who is being harassed? They fear being replaced by others from their cadres who are willing to do the bidding of the bosses. It is safe not to protest. There are officers who are honest, who do not take any consideration for taking a decision, but they do overlook the raging corruption around them. These are the survivors. Is this not dishonesty, since it leads to sacrificing the “public interest”?
Why blame the bureaucrats alone? Honest politicians do the same to stay in power. In 1992, Manmohan Singh stopped the income tax raid on Harshad Mehta on budget day, so that the stock market boom would continue. The bubble, instead of being nipped in the bud, was allowed to grow and, eventually, caused colossal losses to the public and the government. These “honest” decisions were not in public interest. Is it not dishonesty if one looks the other way while corruption grows under one’s stewardship?
If decision-making was transparent, dishonesty would become apparent. The RTI could ensure transparency, but the government has not even appointed the chief information commissioner for so long. The Whistleblowers’ Protection Act is pending since 2011. If Section 13 of the PCA is amended in the present non-transparent system, it will only provide an escape route to corrupt decision-makers, who will claim their decision was honest.
Are the bureaucrats being assured that if they implement the politician’s will without questioning, they will have protection from prosecution even if public interest is not served? They will also have protection if decisions involve illegality, of which they may not be a part but which they need to overlook. Is the bottomline that politicians are firing from the shoulders of bureaucrats?
The writer is Sukhamoy Chakravarty Chair Professor, JNU.