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INDIA: Now the ‘Mother of All Scams’

Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, Nov 17 2010 (IPS) - As India is rocked by a series of billion-dollar scams, the question on everybody’s mind is whether the perpetrators will go scot-free in what has been described as a low-risk, high-gain activity in this country.

”Corruption has become a disease that is endemic and hard to eradicate,” says N. Jayaprakash Narayan, a medical doctor and India’s best-known anti- corruption crusader. “We urgently need corrective treatment rather than political invective.”

Narayan’s reference was to fierce exchanges between representatives of the Congress party and the main national opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over which party was more responsible for breeding corruption, with neither showing signs of being serious about curbing it.

At the moment the Congress party, which leads the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA), is on the defensive, having been compelled in recent days to remove from office union telecom minister Andimuthu Raja and the chief minister of Maharashtra state Ashok Chavan for malfeasance.

Raja, a member of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party – which rules southern Tamil Nadu state and is an important UPA ally – stands accused by India’s Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of causing losses to the national exchequer worth a humungous 40 billion dollars through rigged sales of second generation (2G) radio frequency spectrum to mobile phone service providers.

Charges levelled at Raja include issuing licences to ineligible candidates, failing to charge market prices for spectrum, ignoring the advice of regulatory authorities, arbitrarily changing cut-off dates, and resorting to a rigged ‘first- come-first-served’ basis rather than open, transparent auction of spectrum, a scarce public resource.

The CAG report, tabled in Parliament Nov. 16, described the allocation of spectrum by Raja in 2008 as having flouted “every canon of financial propriety, rules and procedures.”

Prakash Javdekar, the BJP’s spokesman, has called the 2G scam ”the mother of all scams” for the sheer amount of money lost to the government. Congress party representatives retaliated by pointing out that corruption involving spectrum allocation goes back to 1999 when the BJP held national power.

A BJP government in southern Karnataka state is meanwhile busy warding off allegations of land-grabbing by its ministers and involvement in large-scale profiteering through iron ore mining and exports operated by private concessionaries and power brokers.

”What is amazing about the 2G scam is that Raja brazenly ignored warnings from every concerned authority, including the Prime Minister,” said Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a well-known commentator on economic affairs. ”If this is not impunity, then what is?”

Thakurta has teamed up with the Centre for Public Interest Litigation and the Telecom Watchdog, both voluntary agencies, in petitioning the Supreme Court to monitor the progress of investigation into the case.

”We have in our petition asked the Supreme Court to either appoint a special investigating team or else directly monitor the progress of the CBI investigation,” Thakurta told IPS.

On Tuesday the apex court gave the government two days to explain why Prime Minister Manmohan Singh failed to act on a request filed Nov. 29, 2008 by well-known politician and former minister Subramaniam Swamy, seeking permission to prosecute Raja.

It took until Oct. 21, 2009 before the government’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) initiated a case against Raja, and the court has demanded that the government explain the 11-month delay.

Thakurta said the case could seriously damage the Congress party’s image, given that the money involved is bigger than the country’s annual defence budget. ”Just think of the number of badly needed schools or health facilities that could have been built for 40 billion dollars…the people are watching,” he said.

People are certainly waiting to see what happens to a 31-storey block of swish, sea-facing apartments in a prime location in Mumbai, capital of Maharashtra state, that was illegally built by a nexus of politicians, bureaucrats and army officers.

Congress party president Sonia Gandhi was compelled to sack Chavan as chief minister after it was found that he was part of the nexus, and had swung several apartments for himself in the building that may now be demolished for violating Coastal Regulation Zone laws.

The unforgiving mood of the public towards corruption is palpable in the way a crowd of 60,000 spectators at the Oct. 3-14 Commonwealth Games (CWG) booed Suresh Kalmadi, its chief organiser.

Kalmadi is under investigation for alleged financial mismanagement resulting in the cost of holding the CWG spiral from the original estimate of 450 million dollars to 6 billion dollars, with profits skimmed off by contractors and officials. Two of Kalmadi’s chief aides have been arrested.

According to Transparency International (TI), the Berlin-based international corruption watchdog, the CWG scams have negatively impacted India’s image. TI’s corruption index for 2010 ranks India three notches lower than last year’s rating, to 87th among 178 countries.

“The perception about corruption in India seems to have increased primarily due to alleged corrupt practices in the recently held CWG in Delhi,” said the TI annual report, released on Oct. 26.

Thakurta believes that one reason why India’s ranking on TI’s corruption index is dropping is because the perpetrators, usually powerful politicians or bureaucrats, rarely go to jail, if caught at all.

Narayan said laws need to be enacted to prevent the corrupt from enjoying the fruits of their misdeeds. ”In the 2G case what we would like to see is cancellation of the spectrum licences handed out by Raja under dubious or illegal means, and order fresh bidding.”

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