Corruption and abuse of office for personal gain have reached alarming proportions in our country. Combatting this ever-growing menace would require the three pillars of the state – executive, parliament and judiciary – to apply all their energies and authority to the problem. However, given the capture of the executive and parliament by the corrupt and the tax-evading Birkin Handbag brigade, there is little one can expect from these two institutions. When young scions of major political leaders across party lines gang up to defraud public institutions, it is a grim indicator of the gravity of the situation.
The Supreme Court has taken up a few high-profile corruption cases, which is a step in the right direction. However, the SC needs to expand its focus to a more comprehensive judicial review of the country’s anti-corruption infrastructure – comprising laws, policies and institutions – to destroy the environment wherein the powerful see corruption as a low-risk, high-reward activity.
Unsettling entrenched and systemic corruption requires administering a shock in order to disturb the corrupt equilibrium. Given the civil society’s helplessness in this area, and in the absence of an Anna Hazare of our own, judicial activism is the last hope against this irresponsible parliament and government, and a check against the privileged power abusers of society.
In the context of the high-profile corruption cases, and taking into account the best anti-corruption infrastructure of countries that have been successful in breaking the back of corruption (South Africa, Singapore, Chile and Hong Kong), the SC needs to review the following aspects of the corruption menace:
First is the adequacy of the laws. Comprehensive anti-corruption legislation is an important prerequisite to reducing corruption, and must fully cover and clearly define the following kinds of corruption: bribery, nepotism, fraud, embezzlement, administrative corruption, abuse of office, and political corruption that influences the formulation of laws and policies. In addition, there need to be laws to ensure witness protection.
Ranking second on the list are institutions for investigating and preventing corruption. The case about the appointment of the Nab chairman could be the platform for the SC to review these broader issues of institutional responsibilities and the internal functioning of anti-corruption agencies. Presently, the roles and responsibilities are spread among Nab, the FIA and anti-corruption bureaus in the provinces.
In line with best practice examples from successful anti-corruption agencies, the SC should review the following: (i) the feasibility of a single agency at the federal level investigating and prosecuting grand cases of corruption. Such an agency would also actively prevent corruption by recommending changes in practices and procedures of government departments and public bodies to reduce opportunities for corrupt practices. This would be the main tool for lowering petty corruption involving public dealings of key government departments (police, lower judiciary, heath, education, irrigation, city governments, licence and permit issuing agencies etc). It would also educate the citizens and civil society about corruption, enlisting their support in the fight against graft.
As in the countries noted above, the above mentioned agency needs to be fully independent. It must be headed by people with strong prosecutorial and public administration experience, and not judges. It should have its own professional staff – not staff from other departments – to prevent the arbitrary removal and postings of staff members investigating crimes.
Third, in the context of the Haj quota and the NICL land scam, the SC needs to review the broader issue of public procurement and economic decision-making. The Public Procurement Regulatory Authority (PPRA) needs to be strengthened, made independent of the government, and it needs to have stronger oversight of large (say, over Rs 100 million) public contracts.
Furthermore, (i) evaluations of all large contract awards should be placed on PPRA’s website before the actual award of contract (ii) at the time of signing the contract, representatives of the electronic media should be invited and in their presence the signatories to the contract should make written and oral declarations that no commissions or kickbacks have been given or received in respect of the contract.
The transparency of the government’s economic decision-making process needs to be reviewed to reduce corruption. For example, once a cabinet or ministerial decision is taken in respect of economic policies, all related papers should be put in the public domain so that citizens are fully aware of the basis for the decision.
The SC needs to review the following administrative policies which induce corruption and in fact legalise it: (i) allotment of subsidised plots to civil, military, judicial and elected officials (ii) civil servants and public office holders taking up positions as board members of public corporations, going on travel paid for by private companies and donors, using cars provided by public corporations, and membership of committees taking decisions in respect of contracts in which firms owned and managed by close relatives and friends are participating (iii) retiring senior civil, military and judicial officers seeking government jobs – which makes them susceptible to undue influence of the political parties in power.
In the context of eligibility to hold public office, the SC needs to look at the broader issue of screening by the Election Commission (EC) of returns filed by candidates. Prior to elections, the EC neither has the time nor the resources to fully examine the returns. As a minimum, the EC should have world class forensic audit capacity to conduct an independent audit of all financial returns filed by elected officials with the objective of verifying their reliability and faithfulness, especially matching the personal lifestyles and assets of candidates with their declared sources of income. This exercise is a critical first step in reducing corruption at the top, and reducing the influence of the corrupt in the political system. Needless to say, corruption at the top will prevent any meaningful anti-corruption drive.
Countries with widespread corruption cannot expect high-growth rates in relation to entrepreneurship and innovations. When corruption, which is an unproductive and destructive activity, provides high returns, entrepreneurs will indulge in corruption instead of focusing on productive wealth-creating activities. No country has eliminated corruption, but many have reduced it to very low levels.
In an environment where the fox guards the chicken farm, most citizens have no hope of any meaningful action on the corruption front. Corruption is not about an amount of money changing hands or about “grease in the wheels of business”. It is about the future of the nation. Therefore, in the absence of meaningful action by the government and parliament, the Supreme Court needs to take the lead.
The writer is former operations adviser at the World Bank. Email: email@example.com