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INDIA: Fighting for a Less Corrupt New Year

Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, Jan 1 2012 (IPS) - After failing to muster support in parliament for the passage of a watered- down anti-corruption bill, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh must find ways to satisfy opposition parties, allies and civil society that his United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is serious about curbing graft in the New Year.

The bill passed through the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, on Dec. 27 but tripped up in the Rajya Sabha, or upper house, on Thursday after opposition parties and allies tabled no fewer than 187 amendments to the ‘Lokpal (ombudsman) Bill’ to monitor government dealings for graft and other irregularities.

That left Singh’s Congress party-led UPA government and opposition parties accusing each other of scuttling the bill. “The bill is not defeated. It can be taken up in the next session of parliament. Hard work lies ahead,” union home minister P. Chidambaram said at a press briefing on Friday.

While Chidambaram pleaded that the government needed time to study the demanded amendments, the leader of main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party Arun Jaitley accused the government of “running away” from a vote on the bill to avoid its certain defeat.

With the bill pending until the next parliament session in February, opposition parties and civil society plan to step up public agitations aimed at forcing the government to make amendments that would give the ombudsman legislation more teeth.

Over the past year the government has been under pressure to pass an effective Lokpal Bill by an anti- corruption campaign led by Anna Hazare, 73, who has vowed to continue Gandhian-style agitations against graft, now reckoned to have reached unprecedented heights.

A ‘fast-unto-death’ by Hazare in August rattled the government and forced it to pledge passage of the Lokpal which has been introduced in parliament nine times since 1968, only to be thwarted repeatedly by powerful vested interests.

Hazare’s movement caught the public imagination because it was launched in the background of massive scams like the one which landed former telecom minister Andimuthu Raja in jail for the sale of mobile phone permits in rigged bidding that government auditors say cost the government 31 billion dollars in revenue.

Also in jail are Suresh Kalmadi and other top officials who organised the 2010 Commonwealth Games. They are alleged to have siphoned away large sums of money by awarding contracts to cronies.

Their arrests came only as a result of intense media campaigns that unearthed incriminating evidence that the government could not ignore.

“The fact is that no government or political party has ever been serious about curbing corruption because of the vast amounts of black money (unaccounted cash) it generates which is then used to fund political activity or buy influence in an entrenched parallel system,” said Vineet Narain, one of India’s foremost anti- corruption campaigners.

“What we have seen is that every time the Lokpal bill is introduced in parliament political parties come together to somehow scuttle it,” Narain told IPS. “This last occasion was no different and there is no guarantee that the government will pass the bill in the budget session of parliament either.

“The only difference is that public anger against corruption has never been so high and this is thanks to the sheer scale of graft and the media glare,” Narain said. “But the powers that be are not going to give up a lucrative system without a fight.”

Narain, who is best known for securing several important rulings against corruption through public interest litigation in the Supreme Court, said a point has been reached where “the political class indulges in corruption as a matter of right and is ready to defend and legitimise rent-seeking.”

Narain’s view is not farfetched. In March, India’s chief economic advisor Kaushik Basu released a working paper suggesting that existing law be changed so that the paying of bribes to get work done through the government is not penalised.

Basu’s idea is that under existing law both bribe giving as well as bribe taking are illegal and so there is convergence of interests in keeping the transaction secret. If the giver is not penalised he may, Basu holds, safely blow the whistle on the recipient.

One of the main criticisms of the proposed ombudsman’s office is that it would not have had direct oversight over the lower echelons of the bureaucracy that are responsible for the routine bribery and petty corruption characteristic of Indian business and governance.

Many believe that corruption in India is widespread because the middle classes are willing to pay ‘speed money’ for government services that may range from getting a passport or driving licence to jumping the queue for allotment of housing or securing admission for a child in a school.

“The government needs to seriously look at the supply side of corruption and its patronisation by ordinary citizens as well as large private corporations,” says Anupama Jha, executive director of the Berlin-based Transparency International (TI)’s India chapter.

According to a TI survey released on Dec. 22, “Daily Lives and Corruption: Public Opinion in South Asia”, one in three public service seekers pays bribes in India.

“The fact is that the Lokpal was introduced in parliament yet again only because of pressure to act against corruption by civil society, the media and the courts,” she told IPS. “Once again, they went through the motions of passing legislation and then scuttled it – though it is obvious that people are sick of the sleaze.”

Jha also believes that the system is far too entrenched for easy remedy. “You need firstly to address the way black money is generated through bribery and then passed on to political parties or leaders through a complex system in which the secret banking system in Switzerland and other tax havens are involved.

“The lack of seriousness on the part of the government can be seen from the fact that it has ignored offers by the Swiss government to pass on taxes accruing against large deposits made by Indian nationals,” Jha said.

During Thursday’s debates on the Lokpal bill in parliament eminent lawyer and legislator Ram Jethmalani criticised the government for protecting Indians holding accounts in Swiss banks by signing a weak double- taxation avoidance protocol in August.

Global Financial Integrity, the Washington-based watchdog, in its latest estimates published in December estimates that illicit money flow out of India in the 2000-2009 period was worth at least 104 billion dollars.

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