P V Indiresan

Corruption, a systemic problem

P.V.INDIRESAN | Updated on February 22, 2013

A decentralised system of administration — politicians, technicians and inspectors — would be ideal. — Sampath Kumar

Politicians should be paid well, so that they stay away from making money in administration. Onus for decisions, such as purchasing copters, should vest in an individual.

Long years ago, I was advised by an elderly gentleman who was travelling with me on the Grand Trunk Express never to take a decision on my own; involve as many others as possible. Only then will I have several people to back me up when anything goes wrong, as it will.

I am afraid I did not accept his advice. Some months later, the accounts department pointed out an error in my decision and I wrote on the file ‘I am sorry’. My head of the Department, Ahmad and a very nice gentleman, was furious; he said never accept a mistake.

NO APOLOGIES

There are millions and millions of notings in government files. There must be any number of mistakes in them. However, I doubt whether there is one noting which says: I am sorry; I committed a mistake. God may commit mistakes but no government official does so. Also, nobody is guilty unless proven without doubt. As there is virtually in every case some doubt or other, ipso facto, nobody is guilty.

After one of his experiments went horribly wrong, Gandhiji said “I have committed a Himalayan blunder.” Our leaders never follow Mahatma Gandhi; they prefer Ahmad’s principle. That is a pity.

We also do not forgive. I wish we could develop a culture of charity: Treat mistakes as mere faults. Only when they are hidden and not accepted, treat them as a crime. In the US, an accused can even make what is called a plea bargain; accept a smaller offence than he is charged with. Why should we not have a similar system in our country?

Acts of corruption are tumbling out of the closet these days. Naturally, the opposition is making the most of the situation.

Unfortunately, there is not one political party that does not have skeletons in its cupboard. The opposition parties forget that when they come to power, as in a democracy, they will someday, they themselves will be harassed the way the Government is being harassed today.

Further, nobody takes or initiates steps that will reduce mistakes, or discover them early before they cause serious harm. In particular, no one is talking of what should be done to tackle the excuses the culprits give for their maladministration. Corruption will continue, and will probably increase and not decrease, unless and until the excuses are checked and the political system is reformed.

FULL ACCOUNTABILITY

Suppose the recent helicopter purchase had been entrusted to just one senior official with full authority to use his personal discretion to decide — after consulting all relevant officials. However, he cannot request any special provisions to suit the whims of his bosses. Further, absolutely no middlemen or any price negotiation either.

The official may be given the authority to reject even the lowest quotation if a better system was considered worth the higher price. Then, the purchase would take months and not years; cost will be less. If there is a whiff of corruption, one and only one person will be responsible.

However, in such a system no politician can make money. Hence, I repeat, our legislators (even the runners-up) should be paid very well. Further, all legitimate election expenses of serious candidates should be met in full by the state; what those expenses are should be decided in consultation with candidates in each constituency. Also, political parties should be made internally democratic the way they are in developed countries; the “high commands” will not select candidates for any election, but decide party policy only.

THREE-TIER SYSTEM

In addition, administration should be decentralised. Our administrators are under the false impression that power resides in overseeing every petty decision.

Actually, all organisations require three kinds of operators: One, policymakers who decide what should be done; two, technicians who decide what tasks have to be performed and also perform them; three, inspectors who find out where things went wrong and where they were done well. Policymakers should be wise, well informed of historical precedents and of future (technological) prospects. The actors should be highly skilled in their respective trades. Inspectors should be critical but not nit-pickers. They should be charitable and forgive simple errors. No one person can be proficient in all three tasks and the system should select appropriate persons in each case; handsomely reward good performance and correct bad ones.

In their early days, the IITs were quite well run. Once a year, the top finance official of the Education Ministry would go to each IIT and decide through consultation how much funds each one will get. Then, each IIT could decide how the money should be spent; it did not have to take permission on each purchase or expenditure.

The auditor general inspected the accounts every year, permitting much autonomy in decision-making. Further, every few years, the IITs were reviewed by a joint expert committee which recommended new directions under which each IIT could proceed. It worked well.

We need such a system throughout the country and in every department. Unfortunately, these days, senior officials of the Ministry sit on the Boards of the IITs and all other so-called autonomous institutions. They destroy autonomy by talking of what the minister desires.

Further, the judiciary should resolve promptly complaints about the legality of its actions. Unfortunately, with the abolition of the jury system, trials take years and years giving criminals a life time to get away. There is an urgent need to remove the power of adjourning trial cases from the judiciary, make each trial court a fast-track one.

How I wish that our leaders are paid well; they learn to accept and forgive errors; administration is decentralised, and the judges punish quickly those who hide their errors.

(The author is a former Director, IIT, Madras. Response to indiresan@gmail.com)

This is 349th in the Vision 2020 series. The previous article appeared on February 9.

Published on February 22, 2013

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