The Economic Adviser to the government, Dr Kaushik Basu's proposal to not only condone harassment bribe as being legit but also to make it eligible for reimbursement by the government if the act of such bribery is followed up with successful whistle-blowing, has come as much for rhapsodic acclaim as for searching criticism.
The reimbursement part was perhaps an afterthought following the criticism that the majority of the people may choose the line of least resistance - remaining quiet. The sequence thus is ‘pay harassment bribe, blow the whistle and claim reimbursement of the bribe thus paid'.
The reimbursement is to incentivise whistle-blowing. In fact, the reimbursement part is a throwback to the claims of Tata Tea and Goodlass Nerolac long ago in Income-Tax proceedings.
Tata Tea's plaintive plea that it had to cough up huge sums to ULFA to do business in Assam struck a chord with the tax tribunal so much so that the then Finance Minister, worried about its precedent effect, post-haste inserted an amendment to the Income-Tax law proscribing deduction of illegal payments, be they over the table or under the table, speed money or slush money or for that matter even harassment bribes.
Earlier, Goodlass Nerolac made a similar plaintive submission before the Bombay High Court seeking approbation and allowance for its good conduct in disclosing transparently in its profit and loss account the percentages it has had to pay (of course on the sly) while bagging contracts and for speeding up payments. But the High Court was not amused.
One wonders whether this facet of the Income-Tax law would call for rethinkshould the government make harassment bribes legit.
Assuming that somehow the ticklish issue of what constitutes a harassment bribe is squelched, the bottom line at best would be reduction in small bribe taking at the lower levels of the officialdom. But that would be a very small accomplishment at the end of the day for a nation fed up with corruption at high places.
Dr Basu's proposal perhaps has an implicit larger message — if a lowly clerk can be exposed by the vexed bribe giver post-haste, there can be no harm in trapping those in power with the bait of currency notes and catching them through a spy camera a la Tehelka.
To be sure, he has not aired his views on the ethics or otherwise of trapping people thus. The truth is spycams can do what CCTVs can't. Intrepid, chronic, obdurate and incorrigible bribe takers in the Bombay Customs reportedly painted the CCTV camera lens with cement and mocked at Mr Vittal, the then Central Vigilance Commissioner. The less enterprising ones, but possessed by equal greed, steer clear of trouble and cameras by collecting their rewards outside public gaze in clandestine corners over a glass of beer.
Spycams by their sheer nature are immune from being shut out. Indeed in a country where decoy official policing is almost unheard of and whistle-blowing too risky — the few who have done have paid with their lives — spycams is a possible solution to the festering problem of corruption at high places. And so is phone tapping subject to safeguards.
(The author is a Delhi-based chartered accountant.)