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Art of graft
When the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council declared recently that the country did not need to look to just one place to fight corruption, it was taking a potshot at the Anna Hazare-led Lokpal campaign. While not everyone sees the Lokpal as a silver bullet that will fight the deep rot of corruption, an evaluation of existing vigilance mechanisms in the country does make a good case for an independent anti-corruption ombudsman.
Data released recently by the PRS Legislative Research, a unit of the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi, showed that less than six per cent of corrupt officials in the country are actually nailed for their crimes. Existing watchdogs are not only sluggish in cracking down on corruption cases, they are discouragingly politicised and shortstaffed and show up a poor record of prosecution of those found guilty.
So even if the Lokpal Bill does go through as envisaged, the road to actually eliminating or even reducing corruption in the country is a long and rocky one.
Take the country's apex agency for addressing corruption in the central government's ranks - the Central Vigilance Committee, which orders investigations through the Central Bureau of Investigation or governmental departments. "Six per cent of cases investigated by the CVC were taken up for prosecution from 2005 to 2009, " reveals recently released PRS data. The vast majority, 94 per cent of corruption cases, were dismissed with penalties. Researchers point out that corruption itself is generally under-reported, and even cases which reach vigilance bodies like the CVC rarely get nailed.
The numbers speak for themselves. Of the 13, 061 cases tackled by the agency in the fouryear-period, only 846 were taken up for criminal prosecution. Another 4, 895 cases resulted in major penalties such as officials being dismissed, losing their pension benefits or receiving a demotion, while minor penalties were imposed in 5, 356 cases. The remaining 1, 964 cases were left to administrative action.
"The existing anti-corruption mechanism is wholly inadequate to deal with the scale of corruption in the country due to inadequacies in terms of staff, legal impediments and political pressures. A few hundred officials are convicted every year for corruption, which is a laughable number given that we have around 20 million government employees, " says Dr Jayaprakash Narayan of the Loksatta Party who was previously on the Vigilance Advisory Council constituted by the CVC.
The latest data put out by the National Crime Records Bureau underlines the concerns and lack of real will to fight graft. Of the 8, 320 cases which were investigated under the Prevention of Corruption Act and related sections of the IPC by various agencies - the police, vigilance departments, CVC, Lokayuktas and CBI across states - only 31. 8 per cent were chargesheeted as of 2009. Many of these agencies are under the government, which could scuttle any efforts at transparency. At the end of 2009, as many as 6, 249 cases were pending investigation and 15, 733 cases awaited trial. Track the record over a decade, and the poor percentage of convictions leaves little room for optimism (see box). States like West Bengal, Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur, and Goa, in fact, had zero convictions for corruption through the entire decade.
LOKPAL: A MAGIC BULLET?
There is a popular tendency to swing between exaggerated expectations and cynical criticism, point out analysts who caution that systemic change is an evolving and long-winding process. While most acknowledge that the Anna Hazare-driven movement for the Lokpal packs a punch in the fight against corruption, there are many grey areas that need addressing.
"While it is a step forward, the Lokpal will certainly not be a panacea for all corruptionrelated ills in the country. The pendency of cases in existing i nvestigative agencies is due to the lack of will, and it is worth deliberating on how the Lokpal will exert pressure on the government or politicians to effectively address chronic problems such as the lack of staff or funds to fight corruption, " says Anupama Jha, executive director of voluntary organisation Transparency International-India.
N Bhaskara Rao of Delhi's Centre for Media Studies, which has worked extensively on transparency issues, too feels existing anti-corruption bodies don't inspire much confidence, but feels there is a need to remain optimistic. "The Lokpal is being structured differently, which provides hope, " he says, adding that the pressure from civil society needs to be sustained.
The structure of the Lokpal itself has also raised concerns about the body becoming dangerously all-powerful (the model envisages merging the corruption-related functions of the CBI and CVC with the Lokpal). "There are issues that will need a lot of deliberation such as who will supervise the Lokpal or whether judges should be brought under the ambit of the body, " says Jha.
The growing sentiment is that the Lokpal should be the start of many essential reforms. "We need a multi-pronged approach that includes independent corruption agencies, removing existing impediments and institutional concerns, speedy decisions in courts and electoral reform, " says Narayan. NAC members last week proposed a basket of reforms including social audits, legislation for judicial accountability and protection to whistleblowers, among others.
Arvind Kejriwal of India Against Corruption, an NGO which has been spearheading the current Lokpal agitation, says the aim is a holistic shift. "We are working towards an unconventional and complete overhaul of existing anti-corruption mechanisms rather than simply tinkering with the existing bodies, " he says. He points out that lack of independence and accountability were the two factors dragging down existing investigative bodies and that the Lokpal will be different on both counts. "The bill will have provisions for fast-track courts, state-level bodies as well as recruiting more officers at the start to clear the existing backlog, " he says.
Total no. of cases pending in courts as of end-2010
Of these, cases pending for over a decade
Posts vacant in CBI (approximately)
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