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Accountability Transparency Is Not Just For Politicians, But Also For Media: Bibek Debroy

BW Businessworld sat down with Bibek Debroy, Kishore Arun Desai and his team of young economist to understand the state of the economy and the deep-rooted corruption

Photo Credit : Ritesh Sharma

Is ending corruption and weeding out black money possible?. “It's happening all the time as we speak,” said Bibek Debroy, clutching onto his latest book - On the Trail of the Black: Tracking Corruption', that he has edited along with Kishore Arun Desai, an Officer on Special Duty at NITI Aayog with Debroy.

Providing a fact-based course, the new book takes an in-depth look at the cross prevalence of corruption in the country across various sectors, analysing laws ranging from Prevention of Corruption Act to the Lokpal bureaucrats.

BW Businessworld sat down with Debroy, Desai and his team of young economist to understand the state of the economy and the deep-rooted corruption. 

Edited excerpts: 

Tell us about the whole idea of the book, especially coming at the time of demonetisation’ first anniversary.  
Kishore: The broader idea of the book is to track corruption across multiple sectors. Through multiple essays, we have tried to understand the basics of corruption and understanding the gaps and issue. On the same lines, we have tried to propose certain actionable strategies.

Bibek: The only thing that cuts across the papers of this book is various specific suggestions. We have concentrated on corruption that is domestic.Things like black and corruption need to be specifically defined. They should not be vague terms, therefore there are papers that define the same in this book, taking proper stock of the literature and then recommending what needs to be done to change the law.

You mention in the book how India is at a very ‘sweet spot’ to root out corruption completely from the system.
Bibek: If you look at what governments do, we often tend to give a lot of credit to the government but it doesn’t always work those ways. The problems of a country like India cannot be solved by government alone acting in isolation. Look at something like consumer protection act. Before it was enacted there was a citizen NGO movement for the protection. Similar was for the environment protection act.

If you look at various initiatives, this is for the first time an attempt has been made to rope in the citizen of the country into governance and decision-making process which is the distinguishing difference between words like governance and government. Look at Swach Bharat Mission, voluntary giving up on the subsidy, smart cities mission and you look at something like demonetisation.

Improving the quality of the existing data is a challenge as you mention, where the argument of 400 Crore VS 2000 Crore of fake Indian notes in circulation comes in, with different reports citing different values…
Bibek: On fake currency, there was a report which was the 400 crore one, done by ISI Kolkata. What we need to remember is the year it was done. The 2000 crore figure of counterfeit currency in the country, is a much later figure given by the intelligence bureaus. Therefore, these two figures are not comparable.

When we talk about counterfeit currency, there is an existing apparatus which something like 8th November demolishes. But then like any kind, criminals also use technology and they will bring in better technology. Therefore, it is a continuous process. All you do by demonetisation to the stock of black wealth or FICN (Fake Indian Currency Note) is demolish the existing apparatus and thereby make it more expensive for the counterfeiter to come in again.

The word black is used loosely. Black has to has some ting of criminality, either tax evasion or other violation of laws. India is still largely informal and un-organised. A lot of numbers that float around of black money as the share of GDP actually shares of the informal economy in the GDP. Hence, these figures are extremely misleading. You will find the figure of 14 per cent black economy which is not black! The last credible estimate was by NIPF 84-85 which was around 22 per cent.

The book talks about the legal loopholes in the system and explains how it is a delight for the corrupt…
Aprajita Gupta: Prevention of corruption amendment bill is still pending, but it has a  lot of important new provisions we can pick on. For example, they have prescribed new timelines for the trail. Also, they have introduced new provisions lagging in the previous one which was used by people to abuse the law. Once it is passed, it will be a helpful amendment to strengthen our existing law.

When we talk about rooting out corruption, the Lokpal debate becomes imperative. What is your take on the same?
Bibek: It is not a binary question of yes or no, but of the shape of the bill, who does it cover and what does it not cover. Today we do not have a trail by jury anymore. Why was it scraped? Because of the Nanavati case where there was a trial by media. Today, there is continuous trail by the media- Take the instance of recent Talwar case. Whether found guilty or innocent, they have been persecuted by media. Has media been accountable? No!

Now I bring in the Rajasthan ordinance, which I think was badly handled. However, in its essence it did not do much beyond it should have i.e. punish the malafide bureaucrat, protect the bonafide and bring in the media. All the media got upset, perhaps legitimately. For seven years the minister has been tried by media because of a carpet case and was finally declared none of the guilty few weeks back by the court.

It comes back to Lokpal because all of the media will say we support Lokpal and want accountability and transparency provided it covers the politicians and bureaucrats. But accountability and transparency are not just for politicians and bureaucrats, but also for media. Today we do not know, particularly electronic media, who owns what? As a citizen do I not have the right to know?

Swati you have authored the chapter, ‘The Elusive Search for the Lokpal’. Why has it taken us 5 decades to bring in this law?

Swati Saini-  The chapter elaborates on the Lokpal journey that has been going on and still not successful yet. We do not have a proper functioning Lokpal. We are therefore looking at various aspects of the Lokpal and critically analyse it. We looked at the previous law, PCA in the RTI and checked on the loopholes which nobody talked about. We want to bring the Lokpal but not amend the previous laws. Similarly, other issues like Prime minister being bought inside the Lokpal are addressed. Is Indian ready for Lokpal given that fact that infrastructure is still not ready yet and other aspects undone.

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