India needs change, now and here. It will not be possible to contain the increasing disenchantment of the people any more. Like a dog that has tasted human blood, the Civil Society will continue to bite again and again.
Unlike our neighbour China, India has adopted an open society, though none of us are willing to credit our politicians for making that possible. We will only harp on the negatives like Emergency and dynasty and will never consider our freedom to talk, write, demonstrate and agitate against the governments and systems. We will not credit the system for an independent judiciary that will protect us, even if administration violates any of our rights. We will not credit our system for maintaining strictly apolitical armed forces that will never come out and crush our candle light marches. We will not credit the system for affording us a vibrant media that can afford to go hammer and tongs against government in power, 24x7.
Well, we can always say these are nothing to be credited for, as they are our birth rights. But if we are still talking about a second and real freedom struggle, where is the question of rights? Also, didn’t the people who were crushed to death in Tiananmen Square have rights? In short, rights are only a function of the political system that a country is following.
Be that as it may, the vibrant media, social media revolution, increasing middle class population with higher aspirations, reduction of opportunities in Western countries are all contributing to the higher and higher demands from the Civil Society. Politicians and political system can afford to ignore these changing aspirations only at their own peril. They will have to show perceptible changes in the system to assuage the disenchantment among people. A collective disenchantment of people is not good for any nation, irrespective of the political system being followed.
Let us look at the options that are readily available before us to make a positive change in our affairs. Before proceeding further, I would like to confess that this is more of an expression of my confused thoughts than a researched paper. The idea is to list out those changes that I feel practical and necessary, so that we can subject them to a larger debate and arrive at more solid suggestions.
Right to Reject Candidates
We often hear the complaint, from people who are blaming our political system, about they being forced to elect the best among the available choices and about the insensitive political parties thrusting bad candidates down their throats. While I disagree with the excuse of opting out of voting on such grounds, I agree with the problem of having to elect from bad choices. The solution is to make right to reject all candidates as one of the voting options in the ballet paper or on the voting machines. (For those interested to read more on this please visit my Blog http://confused-ambadi.blogspot.com/2011/06/indian-democracy-and-right-to-reject.html ) This will at least remove the reason for cribbing about our representatives not really being our choice. Also, this will make political parties more vigilant while choosing their candidates for elections.
Decriminalisation of Politics
We must ensure immediate changes in the Representation of Peoples Act to reduce criminalisation of our legislative bodies. While I am a firm believer in the maxim, “Innocent until proved guilty”, that presumption of innocence should not be carried further to those who have appealed against their guilty verdicts. Once convicted in a criminal case, irrespective of the status of their appeals, these persons must be barred from contesting elections. Coupled with the right to reject candidates, as discussed above, this change will clean up our politics to a great extent and restore credibility of our representatives.
All India Judicial Service
Independent and corruption free judiciary is a cornerstone of rule of law. While Indian Judiciary has remained by and large independent and sensitive to people’s rights, of late some unfortunate tendencies seem to have crept into this section as well. Having associated with our judicial system, I would be surprised if it can remain free from the general degradation of the social norms and resultant corruption.
While judges of the lower judiciary are selected from the practising lawyers by conducting examinations (usually under advice from the State Public Service Commission and High Courts) the judges of the higher judiciary is mostly selected directly, with the remaining being promoted from the lower judiciary. In either case, it is the practising lawyers who end up becoming judges. This causes serious problems, especially in the case of direct entry High Court judges.
The danger is not only in these judges being influenced by their relationships from their erstwhile practise but also being influenced by the high income (most of it tax free!) that they used to earn from their successful practice, before they became judges. We have even heard allegations that certain corporate bodies were promoting the candidature of certain persons for High Court judges, with the expectation that some day in future they will become useful! That apart, lawyers are always in the middle of almost all the major illegal happenings in the country, either as advisors or as counsels to the criminals and corporate bodies. The more successful a lawyer, more likelihood of his/ her being involved in high end deals often involving violations of law. Can we expect these individuals to turn pious overnight, just because they are appointed as judges? Well, I am not suggesting that all these judges are corrupt, but pointing out the increased risk of at least some of them being black sheeps.
Therefore, it is would be advisable to have a dedicated service for judges. Selecting them on the basis of merits at a very young age (before being corrupted by worldly practices) and then training them to become successful judges, in the similar manner as other All India services, will be a step in the right direction. They can start their profession in the lower courts and continue getting promoted till Supreme Court, based on performance records.
Independence of Judiciary is one of the Basic Features of Indian Constitution. By and large we have been successful in maintaining that. However, that independence has caused another problem of accountability. In a democracy, every public authority must be accountable to people either directly or indirectly through their representatives. Judiciary is an exception to this generic rule, for obvious reasons. However, that exception cannot result in a ‘no accountability at all’ situation.
The challenge of ensuring accountability of Judiciary, while maintaining its independence is under consideration of authorities for quite some time now. The Judicial Conduct and Accountability Bill, now under consideration, must be made an effective law at the earliest, to ensure this objective.
Right to Service
Another area that needs urgent reform is the people’s right to get timely service from government agencies. One major cause of corruption is the lack accountability for the government officials, at all levels, to provide timely services. Since the officer is not required to complete a work within a given time, he can keep it pending till his hands are greased by the beneficiary. If you know your water connection is supposed to be sanctioned within so many days and the officer concerned is accountable for that, why should you pay any bribe at all?
Government of Kerala has taken the lead in this regard and is in the process of bringing a law to guarantee right to services in its offices. Time limits will be set for each service and the concerned officers made accountable for any deviation therefrom. This must be introduced in an all India level by passing necessary laws.
Strengthening RTI and Protection to Whistle Blowers
Right to Information Act was a revolutionary legislation that changed Indian administrative landscape forever. The fact that all the major scams of today were exposed mainly with the use of RTI is the greatest certificate to this Act.
However, the Act has brought out certain difficulties as well. The life of activists is facing increasing risk from the vested interests, whose nefarious activities get exposed through RTI. Adequate changes must be incorporated to ensure protection to the RTI users.
Same is the case with whistleblowers as well. We need adequate measure to ensure protection of those individuals who are willing to take the risk of exposing corruption. This is very important in containing corruption because, unless someone blows the whistle, most corruption will not get exposed, as corruption is a crime in which both sides are beneficiaries and interested parties.
Operational Freedom to CBI and CVC
It was with similar objective and fervour as that of Jan Lokpal that we created institutions like CBI and CVC in the past. However, in the absence of adequate awareness and public vigilance, these institutions were made mere sidekicks of the Governments of the day. Use of these institutions for political purposes has been rampant under most governments, irrespective of parties.
The balance between accountability and operational freedom must be institutionalised for these investigative agencies.
Redressal of Public Grievances
The lack of effective machinery for Redressal of the public grievances is quite evident in most parts of the country. Be it the demand for Telegana, be it the demands of Kashimir separatists or even the demands for Jan Lokpal- what is apparent is the lack of expertise and cohesive strategy to deal with the public grievances.
The inefficient dealings of these grievances are aggravating the situation to an extent of the governments losing their credibility and goodwill among the people. No doubt, such a development is not good for a healthy democracy. For more details on this issue, you may please refer to my blog at http://confused-ambadi.blogspot.com/2011/05/redressal-of-public-grievances.html.
Administrative Reforms through induction of Technology
Constant efforts must be made to modernise the administration by resorting to technology as an effective partner. I have personal experience of at least two departments that have become less corrupt and user friendly by adopting technology- they are Ministry of Corporate Affairs (Registrar of Companies) and Income Tax Department.
Automation of processes, reductions of necessity for face to face meetings between officials and beneficiaries, better data creation and management on beneficiaries etc, are some of the practical steps that can be immediately ensured. These processes will ensure the reduction of discretionary powers of officials, thereby reducing avenues for corruption.
Value Education and Change of Attitudes
Finally, no change in the system will be effective beyond the cosmetic level, unless we, the people, are willing to change our attitudes. I was appalled to read in one of the news papers, about a Satyagrahi from Anna Hazare’s group, who openly claimed that when he is in Bangkok he pays his taxes and obeys traffic rules without any problem though he does not do either while in India. Irony is that while he is fighting for a Jan Lokpal to ensure corruption free India, he does not consider his own violations as anything wrong. Unfortunately, most of the people whom I interact with, on the subject of corruption do not consider paying bribe as wrong. They justify those bribes in the name of ‘compulsions’ though many a time these bribes are paid for very little comforts or advantages over fellow citizens!
If we need a new India, this attitude must change. The attitude of Saint I (I would request you to read this poem of mine, as I can’t demonstrate this attitude any better) existing in the new Indians will be a great hindrance in any systemic reforms. We must admit that the bribe givers and the bribe takers are both from our own society. The admission and recognition of how we contribute to the corruption is the first step towards changing our society.
Our education must include human values. I do not mean the religious values; but the values that make a good human being. The priority of a large chunk of population of this country is changing from mere survival to quality life. While ensuring more and more people are brought into this group, in terms of economic inclusive growth, we must also ensure the moral health of this burgeoning group.
Well... Let me assure you I have no plan to fast unto death for these ‘demands’. I believe these are just and logical demands that no government can ignore for long, merely on the merits of the demands itself. I also believe this is not an exhaustive list of the desirable reforms.. Reforms are a continuous process and not a one time affair.
Finally, I have not dealt with the need for an Ombudsman (Lokpal) to check corruption at the highest levels of our polity for two reasons: (i) that a lot has already been said on the subject and not because I do not consider the needs for it, and (ii) ombudsman is for one more level of oversight only and what is preferable is reforms at the very operational level, to ensure lack of avenues for corruption.