BBC BLOGS - Soutik Biswas's India

Archives for April 2011

Should bribe giving be legalised?

Soutik Biswas | 05:00 UK time, Saturday, 30 April 2011

indian currency

Should bribe giving be legalised to curb corruption? Chief economic adviser to the Indian government and leading economist Kaushik Basu thinks so. In a sharp new paper, Prof Basu, a former BBC columnist, says that the interests of bribe giver and bribe taker are congruent under the present law.

They are both "partners in a crime", and it is in their joint interest to keep the exchange hidden from law. But, Prof Basu argues, if you make bribe giving legal, the interests of the giver and taker collide and it is highly likely that the giver will blow the whistle and the bribe taker will get caught. One caveat: this will work only in checking what Prof Basu calls "harassment bribes" - holding back income tax refunds, property paper work and the like in return for graft - which is widespread in India, "breeding inefficiency and [having a] corrosive effect on civil society".

At a time when India is fiercely debating corruption after being hit by an avalanche of scandals, Prof Basu's radical prescription has predictably kicked up a storm. India's communist politicians - usually suspicious about new ideas - have trashed it as a "dangerous and unethical proposal". "Making it legal to pay bribes," said a communist functionary, "would undermine the values of honesty and integrity. Indeed, it would make people who don't pay bribes look like fools."

It is another matter that it is exceedingly difficult to find Indians who haven't paid a baksheesh in their lives.

Other critics like leading journalist P Sainath offer a more nuanced rebuttal. Bribery, he says, will exist as long as scarcity exists. There is an acute mismatch of demand and supply of government services. Making bribe giving legal will in no way curb bribery in sectors where scarcity exists, he argues. Indeed, Mr Sainath says, it will raise the stakes - making for more expensive bribes or the victims "facing heavier demands". "After all," he writes, "the bribe taker needs to be compensated for the higher risk he runs."

However, I found the highly respected development economist and social activist Jean Dreze's critique most compelling and informed. At the root of Prof Basu's thesis is the assumption that the bribe giver will blow the whistle and put the bribe taker in prison. If that does not happen, what is the use of decriminalising bribe giving?

Prof Dreze picks on this and feels that the chances of the bribe giver blowing the whistle against the taker are slim considering the "huge litigation costs, possible harassment and little chance of getting justice - not a far fetched assumption". A perfectly valid observation considering that India's judiciary crawls at a snail's pace.

The real choice, says Prof Dreze, is between not paying a bribe, and paying a bribe without blowing the whistle. "It is perfectly possible that many people would choose the former if bribing is illegal and punishable, but the latter (paying a bribe) if bribe-giving is legalised," he says.

Clearly the onus is on the bribe giver to nail the taker. How does he or she do it? Prof Basu suggests that the bribe giver will "try to keep evidence of the act of bribery" - a secret photo or jotting the numbers on currency notes handed over and so on - so that "immediately after the bribery" the giver can turn informer and get the taker caught. This is easier said than done.

Do you think Prof Basu's proposal legitimises corruption? Or should it - with some tweaks - be given serious thought?

The Jaitapur riddle

Soutik Biswas | 06:30 UK time, Sunday, 24 April 2011

The nuclear plant site in Jaitapur

VS Naipaul wrote eloquently of India's million mutinies. Is Jaitapur one of them? Are the protests against the planned nuclear plant there prompted by a familiar and sometimes foggy debate over whether development is driving rural India into more misery, robbing villagers of their land and livelihoods? What do we make of this week's violence in Jaitapur? Was it a genuine outpouring of peoples' anger against a project that they feel will ruin them and "poison" their land and water? Or did the provocation come from somewhere else?

On the face of it, it is all this and more. By all accounts, the violence was allegedly instigated by a right-wing regional party which is struggling to regain lost political ground in the Konkan coastal area where Jaitapur is located. The upshot of such cynical politics: one 'protestor' dead when police fired on irate villagers, at least 20 wounded, a hospital damaged and passenger buses gutted by the mob. A BBC colleague who is travelling in the area reports that many of the locals feel that their movement against the proposed nuclear plant is now "getting lost in the political din". They also blame the right-wing party for trying to "hijack" their movement.

This is tragic because there are much more significant and vexing issues at stake in Jaitapur. After the disastrous tsunami-induced meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, should India reconsider its push towards nuclear energy? (With the landmark nuclear deal with the US under its belt, India can now import reactors and nuclear fuel.) Will acquiring large tracts of land for nuclear power stations again set the government on a collision course with sections of the unwilling - and sometimes uninformed - farmers?

There are no clear answers. Anti-nuclear energy campaigners are unequivocal about their opposition to the plant. They insist that India will have to pay a high social price for nuclear energy.

Critics like Praful Bidwai believe that India's nuclear energy drive will sound the death knell of precious ecosystems - six 1,650 megawatt reactors will be built at Jaitapur on the west coast, it is planned, in what would turn out to be the world's largest 'nuclear park'. They say the government has forcibly acquired farmland using a colonial law to build the plant. Mr Bidwai, who visited Jaitapur, writes that the nuclear plant will be situated on fertile farmland, not barren wastelands as the government would have people believe. Then there is the threat the plant poses to thriving fisheries. Officials say no local will be displaced from his land, although more than 2,000 people have had to sell parts of their land. So are the protests about better compensation for land, and guarantees about safety?

Most scientists I spoke to dismiss a lot of what the campaigners say, insisting that nuclear power is really the only option India is left with to meet its growing energy needs. An astonishing 400 million Indians continue to live in the dark, without electricity. "You have to choose the lesser evil - more carbon dioxide or the threat of radiation," one told me. Smoke-belching thermal power plants use the atmosphere as a "sewer" and impact climate change. Solar and wind energy cannot meet India's energy demands, they say. Ergo, nuclear power, they say, is the only sensible and clean option. That is why India is planning to set up some 30 reactors over as many years and get a quarter of its electricity from nuclear energy by 2050.

Scientists agree the government has to tread carefully in building consensus at the grassroots and while acquiring farmland to set up the nuclear plants - there is no room for forcible acquisition of land at unremunerative prices.

Then there is this shrill debate over the safety of the plant. Critics point out that the French-built reactor meant for Jaitapur has still not been approved by nuclear regulators worldwide. They say that the site is seismically hazardous - the area was apparently hit by 95 earthquakes between 1985 and 2005 - and since it will be built on the coast will be prone to tsunamis.

Scientists dismiss these arguments as naive and ill-informed. India, they say, will not buy these third generation reactors until international and local regulators clear them. India's nuclear regulators say that Jaitapur is in a "significantly low seismic zone" compared with Japan and Fukushima. Also, the reactors will be built on a cliff 82ft (25m) above the mean sea level. With its 20 reactors, India, scientists insist, has a good safety record. (There was a turbine room fire at a plant in 1993, and a sodium leak in another in 2000). "There have been no serious incidents. There has been no radiation leak. Our record is clean," one official said.

In the tangled skein of conflicts bedevilling Jaitapur, it is easy to lose sight of the main issue: should India pursue nuclear energy to solve its crippling energy shortage? Or should it stumble along, uncertain about the alternatives and keeping 40% of its people in the dark?

Is India serious about fighting corruption?

Soutik Biswas | 13:00 UK time, Monday, 11 April 2011

An anti-corruption protest in India

Is India serious about fighting corruption? Going by some striking data put together by the country's respected, independent watchdog PRS Legislative Research, it doesn't appear so.

India's government officials charged with corruption can be prosecuted only after an approval by the federal or state government. However, by simply sitting on requests from prosecuting agencies, governments can easily slow down prosecutions or make sure that the offenders are never prosecuted.

But are governments serious about prosecuting their own officers? Consider this.

  • The federal government has not responded to 236 requests to prosecute public servants on corruption-related charges till the end of 2010. The overwhelming majority of these requests -155 or 66% - were pending for more than three months.
  • State governments run by different parties have not fared much better. They have not responded to 84 requests till the end of 2010 of which 13, or 15% were pending for more than three months.
  • India's Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) is tasked with fighting corruption in the federal government. Between 2005 and 2009, only 6% of the cases in which the agency found corruption were sanctioned for prosecution by the government. The remaining 94% were let off with departmental penalties, some of them minor.
  • The powerful Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is the main investigative agency used by the CVC to probe corruption and misuse of office by government officials. But till the end of 2010, 21% of its key jobs remained vacant, seriously hindering its working.
  • The criminal justice system is also failing in prosecuting officials charged with corruption. There were nearly 10,000 CBI cases pending in the courts till the end of 2010 - and 23% of these cases had been pending for more than 10 years.
  • As I reported earlier, whistleblowers are facing serious challenges. In 2004, the government empowered the CVC to act on complaints from whistleblowers. Between 2005 and 2009, the CVC received only 1731 complaints from whistleblowers, a paltry annual average of 346.

Is it any surprise then that an anti-corruption bill has been introduced eight times in the parliament since 1968 with no results?

The idea of setting up an Ombudsman type institution in India was first floated in 1963 during a parliamentary debate. Ideally, it would be an institution independent of the judiciary, executive and legislature and would be free to chose the investigation method and agency.

A total of 140 countries around the world have the office of an Ombudsman. Many believe India needs it most. Has its time finally arrived? The government agreed over the weekend to form a panel to draft a stronger law as per the demands of anti-corruption campaigners led by the redoubtable Anna Hazare, who broke a four-day fast over the issue. Watch this space.

Anna Hazare and India's war against corruption

Soutik Biswas | 17:14 UK time, Friday, 8 April 2011

Anna Hazare fasting in Delhi

How has a fasting 72-year-old ex-army man turned social activist managed to captivate middle-class India's imagination and get the beleaguered government on the ropes? Why have thousands of people rallied around Anna Hazare to demand tough new anti-corruption laws?

Well, the answers are simple enough. Indians are fed up of sleaze - the country has been rocked by a string of corruption scandals in the past few months. Mr Hazare is a calm man of unimpeachable integrity with a pleasing smile. He has a track record of fighting corruption in Maharashtra - one of India's most corrupt states. Evoking Gandhi's example, he has become a rallying point for the burgeoning anti-corruption fight and the infuriated middle classes. And there is no greater symbol of coercive non-violent protest in India than a fast - again a Gandhian legacy - however much this form of protest may have been debased in recent years by some politicians who snack surreptitiously while on "hunger strike".

Mr Hazare's tactics appear astute. He has now upped the ante, exhorting his followers to "fill India's jail" - again a throwback to Gandhi - in a mass campaign of civil disobedience. It is clear Mr Hazare is not about to ease the pressure. His fast, played out in the full glare of 24/7 news television, is a significant moment in India's largely jaded fight against corruption. The middle classes have responded, happy there are no politicians taking part. For most Indians, politicians, unfortunately, epitomise all that is wrong with the country. Two politicians were turned away from the site of the fast at Jantar Mantar, a historic Delhi observatory, by irate campaigners.

The fast has also had a bizarre side, with assorted Bollywood stars, controversial gurus and publicity hungry lawyers flocking to the stage. There have been also excited and absurd claims that this could be India's Tahrir Square moment.

Anna Hazare has made enough sacrifices to earn the leadership of this powerful protest - most Indians feel their politicians have conspired to remain silent about rampant corruption. The last time corruption was an issue in election was in 1989 when a minister in the Congress government quit against alleged kickbacks in a defence deal, and became a rallying point for the opposition.

But commentators like Pratap Bhanu Mehta eloquently warn that "sometimes a sense of unbridled virtue can also subvert democracy". They say that the Jan Lokpal Bill (Citizen's Ombudman Bill) that the activists want will amount to an anti-corruption institution vested with draconian powers. They ask: Why do we think that this institution will be corruption-free?

Corruption is a complex malaise in India. It is rooted in opaque and badly-run institutions that have been fostered and tolerated over the years. Then there is the stifling, post-colonial bureaucracy. Everyone knows the warped government policies, like misplaced food and energy subsidies, are open to abuse. Add to that the failure to reform India's election system with its shadowy private funding of candidates, many of whom have criminal records. And many people - some now protesting against corruption - have become habitual bribe givers to navigate the system they have lost faith in. More cynicism has bred more corruption. It's not clear how far Mr Hazare's campaign will go - but setting up an citizen's ombudsman will not be the end of corruption. There's much more to do.

One day cricket is alive and well!

Soutik Biswas | 04:00 UK time, Tuesday, 5 April 2011

India team after winning the World Cup

Fifty-over cricket is alive and well, thank you. I eat my words, having believed before the World Cup that the format was in peril. Sandwiched between the manic thrills of Twenty20 and classical Test cricket, the 50-over game, I had feared, would inevitably perish. Many of my cricketing heroes seemed to share a similar opinion. A year ago, at a MCC lecture, Imran Khan suggested scrapping the 50-over format to free up more time for Tests, keeping space for a World Cup every four years. I'm not sure whether Imran feels the same way now.

Nothing could have been a better advert for the 50-over game than the World Cup which concluded over the weekend. The average run rate touched more than five runs per over for the first time in the 36-year-old championship - the 2011 edition averaged 5.03 runs per over, compared to the previous highest of 4.95 runs per over in the 2007 championship in West Indies. Twenty four centuries were scored, the highest number in any World Cup. Teams batting first won 24 games and lost 23 - a fairly even win-loss ratio. Seventeen totals were above 300 runs. Nearly 70 million people watched the pulsating India - Sri Lanka final on television.

India's rousing win has also helped the rejuvenation of the format. It turned World Cup history on its head, becoming the first host nation to win the championship and chasing down the highest number of runs successfully in a final. India won seven of its nine matches, boasted four of the top 10 run scorers, and shared the top bowling honours. Suitably emboldened by the success of the World Cup, English county cricket administrators are reportedly thinking about returning to the 50-over format, scrapped at the end of the 2009 season in favour of 40-over games.

But the onus falls on the administrators to handle the cricket calendar with care to ensure that the 50-over game stays exciting and relevant. Jonathan Agnew, writing for the BBC, worries that the format has been flogged by administrators and television companies for extracting maximum revenues, leading to excessive and sometimes, meaningless games. "The legacy of this World Cup should be that if treated properly and with respect, the 50-over game is by far the best format for one-day cricket," writes Agnew. Many like Mike Selvey believe that the World Cup needs to be trimmed - the four-week long league stage, they say is inordinately long, and could be easily shortened by having two matches per day.

The ICC has cut the number of competing teams from 14 to 10 for the 2015 tournament to be held in Australia and New Zealand. (Sadly, there is no place for Ireland who beat England in the 2011 World Cup.) "The length of 50 overs will find certain teams out but I think there are 10 teams that can seriously compete in that format," the ICC chief executive Haroon Lorgat says. He says the ICC conducted a survey of 676 million people in five "markets" - England, New Zealand, India, South Africa and Bangladesh" - which showed there was "not just an interest but a passion for one day internationals". Just handle it with care.

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