Sucheta Dalal :Corruption and the hijacking drama
Sucheta Dalal

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Corruption and the hijacking drama  

January 1, 2000

Ever since the Indian Airlines flight from Khatmandu was hijacked, television networks and the media have been hyper-ventilating about lax security and the fact that flight IC 814 was allowed to take off from Amritsar on the instructions of a non-existent bureaucrat. Isn't it surprising that a nation that routinely tolerates brazen corruption, which re-elects politicians who are caught red-handed with several crores of rupees in 'unaccounted' cash, and which laps up media reports on the obscenely lavish weddings of politicians' progeny without outrage, is surprised at the hijacking?

We do not react when a Laloo Prasad Yadav, who takes pride in his humble background, can host an extravagant bash for his daughter while out on bail in connection with the fodder scam. We react to the equally excessive wedding celebration by Mulayam Singh Yadav for his son, by lapping up media reports on the Kalyan Singh-Vajpayee face off. But we expect a different standard when it comes to security officials and airline staff at various airports.

As a complacent nation, completely tolerant about corruption in public life, what right do we have to expect different standards from some petty security officials? Every one of us encounters, tolerates and often participates in the most blatant corruption in every aspect of our everyday existence - licenses, permissions, gas connections, until recently the black market in buying telephones and scooters, traffic violations... even violence and murder be it wife-beating, bride burning or bonded labour.

Yet when there is a serial bomb blast or a hijacking we begin to debate operating procedures.

A random survey would show that Customs officials (particularly those who the public encounters at airports) are usually presumed corrupt unless they demonstrate otherwise. Why then are those who take pride in breezing out of the customs check, through the mediation of touts and agents, outraged when they smuggle RDX to trigger off serial bomb blasts?

Mumbai alone has at least four markets which openly sell what they themselves call "smuggled goods". Fancy show rooms stocked with the best food, wine, electronics, perfumes, crystal , computers, accessories and every conceivable gadget do business openly with the tacit consent of government, enforcement agencies, the municipality and the police. Nobody blinks. Everyone frequents these markets because one would be foolish not to buy foreign goods cheap.

The issue is not whether certain Standard Operating Procedures being occassionally violated but one of massive corruption in all aspects of public life. It is about the collapse of the spirit of public service among public servants and the complete tolerance for it. And it is endangering the security of the people and the country.

The cyclone in Orissa which killed over 10,000 people is an example. The bureaucracy caved in and the state government as well as the Congress party thought that declaring the cyclone a national calamity was more important than getting down to relief operations. Aid in the form of food and cloth lay undistributed in school grounds and shelters while people suffered. Are operating procedures of any use when there is no penalty for not following them?

Are we prepared even after a disaster? After the Latur earthquake in Maharashtra, the World Bank funded a Disaster Management Plan for the state with a separate plan for India's richest city - Mumbai. This plan too is simply an untested document which lists the pecking order of responsibility for government officials and some basic plan for evacuation and shelter. There has been no drill to check if the plan will work in a calamity. Mumbai is on a seismically sensitive zone; it is also dangerously exposed to the sea. A city water reservoir is perched precariously at the highest point in the metropolis; there are only two exit routes by road and the population and traffic density is sure to choke them in minutes.

The meteorological department complains that its weather forecasts are not accessed, updated and disseminated by the Municipal corporation; the Fire Brigade points out that it is completely unequipped to handle new calamities such as earthquakes, gas and acid leakage or even help out in case of violent storms. None of these are addressed as a part of the Disaster Management Programme. It is simply a well put together piece of paper and one can only hope it provides some relief when there is a calamity. The public is neither aware of its existence nor demands measures to make the city safer. If there is ever a problem the plan will surely be fished out and used to pass the buck or apportion blame.

Senior politicians and police officers as well as their children get away with murder and run extortion rackets. It is all accepted with some anger and a shrug. Only an occasional Kini case or a Mattoo case lead to more heat and outrage but even that dies down too.

Security agencies routinely put out what are called "cover your arse" reports warning of potential trouble and violence. These reports precede dates which are potentially volatile - when Hindu and Muslim religious festivals coincide or before national holidays. In any case they are put out three to four times a year. None of the reports have anything specific and none lead to any serious measures to prevent riots, bomb blasts, the Pakistani intrusion at Kargil or the hijacking. Yet after these events, newspapers dutifully carry reports about the warnings and help absolve those who are responsible for criminal negligence.

The Comptroller and Auditor General routinely highlights the most brazen wastage of public funds, serious lack of accounting and accountability, and leakage of developmental aid by state governments and public sector agencies. All that they merit is a newspaper report. In the last five years no political party has attacked corruption with any seriousness.

In is even worse in the world of business. Huge projects and sovereign guarantees are negotiated and pay-offs are openly discussed; the projects are cleared even though they will bankrupt the state. In the financial sector, the padding of project cost and the setting of large capital intensive projects has allowed some industry groups to siphon off thousands of crores of rupees each from nationalised banks and financial institutions.

We like to joke that India has sick companies but rich promoters. Yet, even after the bad loans and non-payment of dues have turned at least three banks sick, there is no public demand for investigation, accountability and punishment. A bail out using tax-payers money and without reforms or disciplinary action is accepted without murmur. After all we are a tolerant nation.

The issue is not about one hijacking incident but the complete lack of accountability and our tolerance of corruption. Unless Indians begin to be less tolerant in the coming century and are more alert to their duty and responsibility to demand a clean-up, we will simply have to learn to live with incidents of hijacking, murder, bomb blasts or worse.

-- Sucheta Dalal