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Entrails Of Corruption

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No first-time visitor to Delhi must miss Jantar Mantar, the complex of astronomical structures Maharaja Jai Singh II of Jaipur built for Emperor Muhammad Shah in 1724. A fascinating sight in itself, it is about to become a place of pilgrimage. For the iconic Anna Hazare came and reclined under a tree to the south of Jantar Mantar last week. There he fasted for a couple of days. Soon there were messengers running between his tent and South Block, less than a mile away, to tell the prime minister to save Anna Hazare's life. A compromise was easily struck, a committee was expeditiously appointed, Anna Hazare's followers stuffed his mouth with sweets, and he went happily home.

Oh! I forgot to mention the occasion. Anna Hazare had started a campaign against corruption. His solution for the problem is a Lok Pal, or a Protector of the People. People hurt by corruption will be able to go to this Protector and ask for protection. The Protector will send his men into the corrupt man's office, and take away files. They will study the files carefully. They may perhaps even organise a sting, and trap the corrupt man. Once they have proof, they will file a case. If the courts indict the corrupt man and he runs out of appeals, he will be punished after a few years.

This may suit the prime minister well, for he is a law-abiding citizen. If the law takes 20 years to imprison a corrupt man, so be it. It may also suit the agitators, for they too wanted a picnic on a spring day in Delhi, feel that they had done something great, and go back to study or work with a good conscience. But if they want to do something effective, they should reflect on why the laws against corruption we have got do not deter anyone from giving or taking bribes. They do not because the probability of anyone being charged for corruption is minuscule, the probability of anyone charged actually going to jail is small, and if these two improbable events coincide, the chance of their doing so in less than ten years is tiny. If each of these probabilities was 10 per cent, the probability of all three happening together would be one in a thousand; most rational people would take that much risk to get rich. Even if each probability were 80 per cent, the chance of their coincidence would be one in two — not high, and probably not high enough to stop most people from taking the risk.

If we want to raise the probability of people — and especially politicians and their hangers-on — being caught, we must remove police from politicians' control. Who should control the police? In France they are under the control of the judiciary; that seems the best alternative available. But that raises the question: who is to control the judiciary? Who is to appoint it, and who is to reward and punish it? At one time, the higher judiciary in this country was appointed by governments in consultation with chief justices. Then in the 1990s, the chief justice of India usurped the power and threw politicians out of the process. The judiciary has not done too good a job of governing itself, least of all of punishing corrupt, supine or timid judges. The present system of collegia has failed. Even if the judiciary is to govern itself, it needs to introduce some procedures for appointment, promotion, demotion and punishment; and it needs to create an administrative machinery for enforcing the procedures. And while it is at it, it might as well take up the same procedures for the police as well. So the most important change required is a central, all-embracing judicial administration.

Even if the quality of the judges and the police is improved, they will still fail if the case load on them continues to be so high. It depends partly on the efficiency of the system. Just now, many people break law with impunity because the probability of their being punished soon is small. If it is raised, the number of crimes will come down. But it can be brought down faster. The judicial administration should work out the composition of the case load and the average time of the police and the judiciary each kind of case takes. The two together would tell the administration which crimes it should aim to reduce to bring down the load. The answer would probably be that it must concentrate its resources on two sorts of crimes: small, low-cost, high-return crimes such as theft, robbery and traffic violations, and big crimes committed by rich people who can afford litigation. And it may also think of using the market, and impose high charges for recourse to courts on private disputes for money, such as inheritance.

The author is Consultant Editor of Businessworld


(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 02-05-2011)