Bureaucratic corruption worries India

By INDRAJIT BASU, UPI Business Correspondent  |  Oct. 9, 2003 at 11:39 AM
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CALCUTTA, India, Oct. 8 (UPI) -- Recently, India's Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) arrested I. P. Venkataraman on charges that he had somehow managed since 1983 to simultaneiusly work full-time as a senior official for both India's federal government and the Karnataka state government and be promoted in both jobs.

For a full 20 years, the CBI charged, the 55-year-old Venkataraman had worked as a scientist in the government's prestigious National Aerospace Laboratories and as an assistant controller with the Karnataka state government's department of legal metrology (weights and measures). He allegedly attended, albeit irregularly, the offices of both government organizations, which are situated in the same city.

Audacious as it may seem, the Venkataraman affair is emblematic of the work culture -- or the lack of it -- in India's vast bureaucracy. It is a culture that has plagued the country ever since India separated from the British rule over 5-decades back. His ability to illegally retain two senior government jobs despite prolonged spells of absence demonstrates the corruption and inefficiency endemic to the country's 20-million strong civil servants.

But not just the Venkataraman affair: numerous other instances show that lack of accountability and patronage of a few corrupt politicians and greedy businessmen have made the Indian bureaucracy a law by itself. So much so that, reportedly, it even made a former prime minister admit that: "Indian administrative-government officers have created such a steel frame around them that even the might of the state can't dismantle it."

Indian bureaucracy owes its origin to the colonial period when the British rule did not trust Indians and made rules for each eventuality. To create and administer such a regulatory regime, they created a bureaucracy, which has survived even today and has become all pervasive.

Transparency International, a global watchdog body, ranked India at a low of 83 out of the 133 countries in its Corruption Perception Index 2003 released on Tuesday, while the World Economic Forum ranked India 44 among 49 countries it surveyed. A recent study by the Center for Media Studies, Delhi, on corruption in urban services reveals that "nearly half of those who avail the services of the most frequently visited public departments of government in the country have had first hand experience of greasing palms at least once". It is this pervasiveness of the phenomenon that has forced many to dub bureaucracy as the "steal frame."

It isn't that the Indian civil service has assumed new powers. But the corrupt post-liberalization government officers have realized that their decisions can make others rich. Their logic: "if greedy Indian businessmen can evade taxes, influence policies and make money through devious means, why should not the government officer who moves their files get a share of the booty."

It didn't come as much of a surprise therefore, when a recent secret survey conducted by a government agency found that over 100 secretary (very senior)level government officials have joined either as full-time executives or as board members of companies with whom they had done official business. Yet, besides lack of accountability and transparency, inadequate salary package appears to be one of the main reasons for the growing corruption in India.

On an average, a secretary-level officer takes home a salary of a mere $521 per month (and gets subsidized accommodation and transport), which many consider as grossly inadequate to maintain and average Indian family offour. Middle and junior level officers get even less.

Others say yet another big reason for bureaucratic corruption in India isthe country's lop-sided administration structure. Although India has over 17 million state and federal government employees, about 20,000-odd federal officers control the collection and disbursement of over $71 billion of federal revenues every year. Of these, 6000 senior administrative officers and an equal number of revenue officers dictate the flow of funds throughout

the country.

Even if a handful of these officials allow about 10 percent leakage in revenue, it means a loss of $7 billion to the government. And, assuming corrupt officials get a cut of just 10 percent, the Indian bureaucracy gets over $700 million a year- that's the amount of money that Central Bureau of Investigation estimates is spent towards greasing the palms of Indian bureaucrats.

Nonetheless, corruption is not just an India-centric phenomenon; it is a global problem. It was a concern discussed in detail even at the recent G-8 summit. However, what worries India is its spread and magnitude. Perhaps the former high-level government officer and India's Ambassador to the United States, Naresh Chandra, wasn't exaggerating when he said, "the size of the problem is far worse than the exaggerations of the most cynical."

Between 1996 and 2000, the CBI and the Central Vigilance Commission investigated 13,265 individuals for corruption. And, between 1998 and 2001, the CBI registered 2,256 cases under the Prevention of Corruption Act. Of these 41 were from administrative department, 4 were from the police, and, 23 from the revenue department.

Corruption in Indian bureaucracy has now come to be accepted as part of the machinery that governs India. Millions are at the receiving end of this phenomenon in their every day lives, whenever they come in contact with any arm of the government at any level anywhere in India.

But the categories that are affected most are businessmen, investors in India (including foreigners), foreign travelers and even foreign politicians. Howard Flight, the British shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the second ranking economic job in the out-of-power Conservative Party, thinks that corruption is a huge issue in India.

Despite the fact that, "India turned capitalist back in 1991 and many of the underlying problems remain-of bureaucratic inefficiency and a lack of straight dealing, " said Flight recently in an interview to UPI.

According to Flight, corruption is one of the main reasons why India's economy has not been able to perform in line with its potential or live up to global expectations.

However, there may be light at the end of the tunnel. Alarmed by this increasing menace and lack of deterrence, the Prime Minister's Office has set up a committee, at Prime Minister Atal Vehari Bajpayee's initiative. Reportedly this committee has already drawn up a blueprint for revamping the civil services to bring in best global practices. "It promises to turn the bureaucrats' world upside down," said sources.

According to the blueprint, performance, competence and specialization would replace seniority, automatic promotion, and security of job. Non-performing government officers would get a retirement offer that cannot be refused, at the end of about two decades of service. The committee has also identified and recommended a separation scheme for "deadwoods" among administrative, police, and forest service departments.

Three categories of officers will be counted as deadwood: the medically unfit; those who have faced three vigilance inquiries; and those who fail tomake the grade in selection for higher ranking positions after a maximum of three attempts. "Very simply, we are reaching a point of no return" say critics. "It is up to the political leadership to decide if India is to be a just society or force its citizens to be party to crime."

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