Intro: It is time we extended the Clean India Mission to wage war on corruption
Author: Mr. Murali Malayappan
Addressing a recent centenary celebration of a large engineering group in Mumbai recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that it is wrong to label the government anti-industry because of action against some dishonest and corrupt people.
Firstly, a good section of the industry in my opinion is not seeing the government as anti-industry for taking action against the corrupt. On the contrary, I believe we are not doing enough. Intentional defaulters who get away without paying back loans from banks (called non-performing assets in banking terms) is just the tip of the iceberg.
The 2018 annual ranking by Transparency International on Corruption Perceptions Index places India 78 on a list of 180 countries, India’s ranking also improved last year by moving up from 81 in 2017, but still below 76 in 2015, the first full year of the current government in its first full year after coming to power a year earlier.
While this improvement is commendable, it is also worth noting that in last five year India's Ease of Doing Business Ranking has improved by 79 places. Critics of the government see this as a failure to control India’s oldest and worst scourge and to a large extent they are not completely off the mark. But if one looks beyond the annual rankings purely in numerical terms, we will be missing the forest for the trees.
One can argue that it is relatively easier to improve what the government can control on its own, while perception of corruption goes much deeper and all the way to citizens and local arms of provincial governments in the country. It is also a true that as a country we have not taken any serious action against corruption at grassroots level, which is the real problem or weed it out if we like a little pun.
Tech-based solutions Some steps have already been taken by the government to set right some of the areas where corruption used to be endemic. The DigiLocker programme that allows citizens to store, verify and share their precious documents and certifications in cloud is one such. As we have seen here, taking away the human interface between government officials and citizens goes a long way in curbing corruption. After the 2018 floods, some 6000 odd citizens in Kerala were able to retrieve their lost documents from DigiLocker is a good case in point in using IT to fight corruption across the country. There is also a strong case to cut down the size of India’s bureaucracy and this again will need the political will to slowly start replacing officials who act as gatekeepers to government services with technology like Artificial Intelligence and robotics.
But cloud-based solution need wider implementation and for this to happen, we need to speed up our efforts to bridge the digital gap in the country. According to a recent Nielsen report commissioned by Internet and Mobile Association of India, the internet penetration in India is still only 36% and even within this, the number in urban India is twice that of rural. While bridging this gap, we also need to step on the gas in wider usage of the internet through content in vernacular languages.
Whistleblowers to the rescue If human interface is at the core of India’s corruption challenge, it can be a solution too. A robust and “consequence-free” whistleblower network cross the country that rewards informers should work well in India. If paying cash reward can by itself create more problems than it solves, how about special tax rebates for whistleblowers who help the government cleanup the ecosystem?
Often when we talk of corruption, we are implicitly referring to the government and public sector. But the reality cannot be farther from this. Kickbacks to secure business are no less prevalent in the private sector as in government offices. But since the tax payer’s money is not involved in private sector corruption, we tend treat this part of the black economy with a kid glove. Just to cite one example, ask any senior executive in the private sector and he or she will have a story or two about how corrupt purchase departments can be. Through the government can do very little here, this also affects the image of the country seeking foreign investors.
Fighting corruption has to be built on three legs – intent at the leadership level, actionable ideas and consistent execution. There is very little doubt that the Modi-government is serious about weeding out corruption. This is half the battle already won. What we need immediately is the go on a mission mode to widen the net to catch the corrupt by casting a wider net and more importantly bringing the guilty to the books. As the Tamil proverb goes, even siblings can’t be as helpful as a few sound thrashes!
While we continue to fire from all cylinders in improving India’s ranking in the Ease of Doing Business pecking order, how about working with the same vigor to move up many more notches on the corruption ranking too? By the time we hit the $5 trillion GDP target by 2025, can we also get into the top 20 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index?