Articles,  India,  Issue XI, June 2016

Are Anti-Corruption Agencies Headed in the Right Direction?

Of late, a debate has reappeared in India on how active anti-corruption agencies should navigate themselves. This has brought into focus the role of anti-corruption agencies and the negative impact the “hyper activity” has on governance in general. The issue appears to be very pertinent as one scam after another is surfacing, resulting in disdain among the public and apprehension in the bureaucracy. The courts have severely criticized the government and bureaucracy on corruption issues. Further, rooting out corruption was a major item in the election manifesto of the present government.

To put it into perspective, let me quote some opinions voiced in leading print media. The first one was from the Secretary of the Ministry of Coal, who has categorically stated that five institutions or “5 Cs” – CBI   create an inhibiting environment that impacts quick and effective decision making. “Questioning general wisdom of blaming politicians for all the ills, the top bureaucrat said the pace of development is not as much impacted by the ‘dishonest’ but by the ‘inhibiting’ factors that prevent the ‘honest’ from taking decisions.”[i] According to another article which appeared a few days later in The Times of India substantially in line with the view of the Coal Secretary. This was from the Managing Director of Air India, who is considered to be a turnaround specialist and was hand-picked by the Government of India to change the fortunes of the beleaguered and heavily loss-making official carrier. The news item reads as: “AI (Air India) chief voices concern over watchdogs turning roadblocks”[ii]

Just over a week after the coal secretary voiced resentment in government circles over watchdogs turning roadblocks through a Facebook post, Air India Managing Director has bared his heart, too, about the prevailing tension in the work atmosphere. He has elaborated his view and said that “the amount of indecision at all levels on a continuous basis has contributed to the chaos and confusion at the national carrier”.

At this juncture, it shall also be relevant to consider the experience of Shri Amit Kumar, an officer of CBI, who wrote an article ‘Too much or too little? Finding the optimum level of intervention – Case Studies from Uttar Pradesh’ in a previous IACAlumnus issue3 in which he highlighted the positive impact of CBI investigations:

  • Transparency in procurement
  • Junior officials could voice their concern
  • Increased adherence to documentation, rules, and procedures
  • Rates of purchase of medicine and equipment fell drastically
  • Fraudulent claims decreased

On the other hand, there were negative impacts as well:

  • High value purchased items could not be utilized
  • Many beneficiaries got left out as payment was made through cheques and they did not have bank accounts
  • Delay in payment was experienced
  • Allocated funds remained unutilized
  • Distinction between lapse and criminal intent got blurred
  • Anti-corruption agency can be effective only in the short term.

Nearly two years after the formation of the new government, the common refrain is that while ministers are working diligently, the implementation of the schemes and policies leaves much to be desired. The reasons are not hard to find. The resident bureaucracy is proving to be a drag on the government. For a large section of the bureaucracy – military or civilian – it is just another job with little accountability.

“The Indian growth story is promising. But the government can capitalise on it only by making the bureaucracy more effective in the speedy implementation of its policies. The argument that the CBI, the CVC, or the CAG prohibit effective decision-making by civil servants is a self-defeating one.”

There is no doubt that when the vigilance/compliance division of any organization or investigating body becomes overactive it is likely that fear embeds itself in the mind of the officers. The most common reaction among officials, though not admitted publicly, is not to take any decision or put their signature on any paper, so that they cannot be questioned later. However, it cannot be denied that if the anti-corruption bodies are not strong, corruption shall flourish and finally inhibit the growth of the country. Ethics cannot be compromised on grounds of accelerated growth. To grow with ethics may be slow but it is robust and, yes, pious. Francis Fukuyama5 brought out in detail that ”political development – the evolution of the state, rule of law, and democratic accountability – is only one aspect of the broader phenomenon of human socioeconomic development”. In this context, so far as democratic accountability is concerned, the “Cs” are all there to ensure accountability in governance. If these ”5 Cs” are not there, then we shall be removing the accountability itself with the consequence of chaos. At the same time, it is felt that anxiety or loss of confidence amongst the bureaucracy is a natural outcome of any investigation.

Significance of Trust

Trust is a functional principle in any relationship, whether at home, outside, or at the workplace. It is the most important link among human beings as well as organizations. Any violation of trust results in a huge impact and the trust deficit can destroy any organization or any relationship. Hence, when there is a fraud or cheating, it destroys the trust of everybody around. In his excellent book, The Speed of Trust, Stephen Covey6 describes trust in basic terms: “simply put, trust means confidence. The opposite of trust – distrust – is suspicion. When you trust people,
you have confidence in them – in their integrity and their abilities. When you distrust people, you are suspicious of them – of their integrity, their agenda, their capabilities or their track record. It is that simple”.

When there is fraud in any organization, trust gets hurt the most. I would like, at this juncture, to describe my own experience in handling fraud. On discovery of a case of fraud, the case had been handed over to the CBI. The result was that there was anxiety all around. An officer who was called to the office of the CBI for clarification later came to me and demanded an
explanation as to why he had been called by the CBI and whether others were also going to be summoned. Joining an investigation and sitting through the inquiry are considered a type of harassment by all levels of employees, although bringing out the truth is also a part of one’s duty. Subsequently, it was generally noticed that some officers would push the case files to others so that they could avoid taking a decision.

Keeping all this in view, a town hall meeting was called in my organization at which all the officers were present. We also had
participants from the compliance division of the private sector as well as legal experts to clarify any legal issues that may arise. Thefindings that emerged are as follows:

  1. Once the vigilance division intervenes, many people stop taking decisions. They become very cautious. They would like to take non-controversial and non-risky decisions. This is also supported by findings at banking institutions in India, where it was concluded that after vigilance activity in a bank branch there was reduced lending, the amount of credit declined sharply, bank risk-taking declined, and the lending was done to safer industries. Furthermore, the impact remained for around two years.
  2. To bring the situation back to normal is a lengthy and strenuous process. It is also time-consuming.
  3. People are clueless as to what is right and what is wrong. The safest course of action they find is not to take a decision.
  4. When there is fraud, it is done by one person but the whole organization gets a bad name.
  5. The fraud is committed by one person but each individual is affected. It is not realized that it is only one person who is wrong and the rest are good.
  6. It is very important that after the fraud has been detected, the top management should come out and clarify its stand. It should be made very clear that only cases where there
    was mala fide shall be punished. In the rest of the cases, the management shall be benevolent.
  7. When officers were asked why they are feeling low on confidence in taking a decision, they were not sure. Once the perspective was explained that the vigilance/compliance division looks only for the mala fide intention in fixing responsibility, there was some clarity.
  8. Building trust is a time-consuming and continuous effort. There should be a well-defined and well-structured programme for it.
  9. Training is a very essential aspect. There should be training at all levels about the ethos of the organization and its belief in ethical behaviour. The organization shall walk the extra mile to help its employees to be honest.
  10. It should be clearly brought out that if there is any doubt in the minds of the employees the management is always available to clarify it.
  11. In the end, I would like to quote from the judgement9 written by Justice N. V. Ramanna:
    “10. [C]ivil and public officials are expected to maintain and strengthen the public’s trust and confidence by demonstrating the high standards of professional competence, efficiency, and effectiveness by upholding the Constitution and the rule of law as well as keeping in mind the advancement of public good at all times. Public employment being a public trust, the improper use of the public position for personal advantage is considered as a serious breach of trust”
  12. Dishonesty and corruption are the biggest challenges for any developing country. If the public servant indulges in corruption, the citizens who are vigilant in all aspects take note of this seriously and develop a sense of distress towards the Government and its mechanism, on a whole it sends a very alarming message to the society at large and to the common man in particular. In any civilized society, the paramount consideration is the welfare of the society and corruption is the biggest hindrance in that process. If the corrupt public servant is not punished, then it will have a negative impact on the honest public servants who will be discouraged and demoralized.
  13. […] This Court time and again extended assurance to the honest and sincere officers to perform their duty in a free and fair manner towards achieving a better society.”

End notes

1 “5C’s” also hinder decision-making: Coal secretary Anil Swarup, The Economic Times, New Delhi, 6 April 2016, http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2016-04-06/news/72101920 1 coal-secretary-anil-swarupcivil-servants-cag
2 The Times of India, New Delhi, 16 April 2016
3 IACA Alumnus Issue VII, May 2015
4 Hindustan Times, New Delhi, 19 April 2016.
5 Francis Fukuyama 2014 ‘Political Order and Political Decay’ (p. 40) Profile Books Ltd.
6 Al Lopus, Building Trust in Organizations, http://blog.bcwinstitute.org/building-trust-in-organizations/
7 Al Lopus, Building Trust in Organizations, http://blog.bcwinstitute.org/building-trust-in-organizations/
8 Are the monitors over-monitored? Evidence from corruption, vigilance and lending in Indian Banks by Abhijit Banerjee, Shawn Cole and Esther Duflo http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTMACRO/Resources/ June5&62008MGConferencePAPERCOLE.pdf
9 Writ Petition (Civil) No. 933 of 2014 in Dr. Ram Lakhan Yadav Vs State Government of Uttar Pradesh. Supreme Court of India.