Sucheta Dalal :Corruption and the chalta hai attitude
Sucheta Dalal

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Corruption and the chalta hai attitude  

January 10, 2000

Letters to my last column have been pouring in and I must confess that I am overwhelmed at the response. Clearly, the extent of corruption that we routinely tolerate is a great embarrassment and the reader response indicates that people are not yet completely immune to the problem.

The reactions are all in favour of "doing something about corruption" and suggestions about how to tackle this range vary from the "save our nation from these corrupt bastards. Lock them up. Or better still shoot them... like they would in China," to the call for "a mass movement to tackle corruption", or the conviction that what is needed is "major surgery for long-term relief and not superfluous short-term treatment".

Dhananjay Bramhe suggests a series of actions which not only curb corruption, but also simultaneously eliminate prosperity hindering laws. Chandra Shekar Pandey thinks that the media needs to play a role in educating the public and catching the big fish. Ashish Hegde says that corruption can only be overcome through a mass revolution by the people. He hits the nail on the head when he says that "no government can, on its own, crack down on corruption unless people force it to". And this is precisely where we fail miserably.

The response to this column is in itself a good example of why this happens. Except for half-a-dozen letters, almost every letter to the column is from Indians living abroad.Or that class of Indians who have done well overseas and are acutely embarrassed at the extortion and corruption from the moment they deplane at an Indian airport. Let me share my experience of why public anger, such as it is, does not translate into action.

For some reason most Indians seem to think that it is the job of the media to fight corruption and their own role is restricted to sighing over their newspaper, or debates on the local train as they commute to work.

The truth is that very few newspapers in the country are willing to do a fair and impartial investigation into the shenanigans of industrialists, politicians or government. Media empires are usually controlled by businessmen who do not dare to go beyond a few pinpricks to the establishment.

Even independent ones are circumscribed by their desperate need for advertising support or the cozy friendship between editors/proprietors with powerful businessmen and bureaucrats. So much so, that instead of being encouraged to investigate, journalists usually fight their biggest battles not with outsiders in the system, but within their own organisations. There is little incentive even for the media to encourage whistle-blowing or ruffling powerful feathers. They lose advertising, are harassed by government and cut off from the all-important 'A' lists of the rich and the powerful.

Had there been more public consciousness and support, I am sure that more newspapers would be willing to follow investigations to their logical conclusion. Let me give you three examples of failed fights.

Vineet Narain is the gutsy editor of Kaalchakra, an investigative magazine that broke the story of the Jain Havala dairy listing pay-offs by the Jain brothers to a galaxy of top politicians, bureaucrats, public sector employees and editors. He followed up the expose with a well-publicised court case that first implicated top politicians and had the nation in thrall for almost a year.

Later the Supreme Court of India let off all of all the politicians including one who had confessed to receiving money from the Jains (he is now a powerful minister). The apex court said that the diary was not admissible as evidence. Narain has repeatedly argued that the Central Bureau of Investigation simply did not bother to corroborate the entries in the Jain diary through further investigation and instead presented a badly drafted case. He toured the country explaining the scam to newspapers and journalists so that the pressure could be kept up. Very few were interested. The role of the public never went beyond reading newspapers and the matter finally died a quiet death. The bureaucrats, public sector employees and editors were never even touched.

In case of the Rs 5,000 crore Securities Scam of 1992 which involved all the major banks and institutions, the meandering trial has lost all meaning and cases are presented by the prosecution without so much as calling for key witnesses who are usually foreign bank executives posted out of the country. Many of the key witnesses have simply died in the last eight years.

Another aspect of how battles are often lost is the fight against the Enron Power Corporation's project at Dabhol in Maharashtra. As many as 26 cases were filed against the hugely expensive project; all were dismissed. Enron Corporation proclaims that it has great faith in the Indian judiciary, but the fact is that none of the cases went into technical calculations of the cost of power, comparisons with international projects or the manner in which the project was cleared. No experts were asked for independent opinions by the court.

Yet again continuous coverage by the newspapers was futile. For a while when the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government came to power, it seemed as though the project had been scrapped. But this government re-negotiated an even more brazen and expensive project which included a larger second phase. Now that it is commissioned, all apprehensions about the high cost of power have proved true. The loss making State Electricity Board is also backing down the much less expensive power supplied by other companies to meet the terms of the Dabhol project. There are hundreds of such examples that do not even attract public attention.

The cancer is so pervasive that people often find it easier to question the motives of journalists rather than the facts of a report. Journalism itself is by no means pristine clean; it has as many corrupt elements as other sections of society. Several senior journalists and editors are well-known fixers and lobbyists for industrialists and politicians. But that still does not excuse indifference and apathy of the people who stand by and watch politicians bankrupt their states or bankers who allow industrialists to siphon off public funds.

On the other hand, expectations from journalists are often fanciful. Readers call in to ask scribes to follow up their own reports by filing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL). When I pointed out to one reader that litigation was not only expensive but should not be the job of a journalist, he shot back, "You are influential, I am sure you can raise the money!" Does this not defeat the entire purpose of unbiased reporting? Needless to say, the reader was unwilling to file litigation himself.

Funding a fight is a serious impediment for Indians. The few public-spirited citizens who have been plugging away at cleaning the system by filing litigation are doing it at their own expense. The paucity of funds, however, leads to badly drafted and poorly argued cases which end up being dismissed. I know of a case where a sympathetic judge went so far as to call in another consumer group and asked it to join a litigation so that it can be better argued and lead to a sensible verdict.

Fighting corruption needs a network of committed and dedicated people with diverse skills who are willing to pool in their efforts for the cause. They also need to find adequate funding. The Internet is capable of creating such networks. It is also possible to put in place a structure that will not allow individuals to hijack the effort for their own publicity or to sell out to the establishment. As more and more Indians get on to the Internet, an earnest and concerted effort to fight corruption at all levels may finally begin.

As Ashish Hegde says we will have to force the government to act.

-- Sucheta Dalal