Friday, 29 July 2016

PPP, A new definition

PPP, A new definition
“PPP”, a popular abbreviation, means different things in different contexts. Economists use it (Purchasing Power Parity) as a technique to determine the relative value of different currencies. In computer networking, it (Point-to-Point Protocol) is a data link protocol to establish a direct connection between two nodes or points. In the field of investment, it (Public-Private Partnership) refers to a venture funded and operated through a partnership of government and private sector.

To this list, we should add “Private Profit at Public Cost”. You can say PPPC, if you so like. Its latest example is theft of secret documents from several departments of the Central Government by insiders. If big scams like allotment of coal blocks and spectrums to the favourites exposed politicians and top bureaucrats, on-going arrests of low functionaries proves that no one wanted be missed the chance when the atmosphere was so congenial. If senior bureaucrats are also nabbed for the theft, it would only show that differences in the ranks vanish when interests are common. It is just another manifestation of deep-rooted and widespread corruption in the country.

My study of history of corruption in post-independence India, before I joined the IRS in 1965, and my own experience during 37 years of service in the government, show that what has been coming out these days is neither a recent development nor limited to a small section of the government functionaries, political or bureaucratic. The serious minded people who want to fight corruption must know how the situation has become so alarming. About 2500 years ago Confucius had said, “Study the past if you would define the future.

Of course, one can say that corruption is as old as human history. Perhaps it is in human DNA. Naturally it has always worried thinkers and well-wishers. About 2300 years ago, Chanakya had written in the Arthashastra: “Just as it is impossible to taste honey that finds itself at the tip of the tongue, so it is impossible for a government servant not to eat up, at least, a bit of the king’s revenue.” Chanakya suggested several measures to deal with the menace.

The complaints of corruption against the erstwhile freedom fighters started surfacing even before the British had returned to their country but the architects of modern India chose to ignore the warning signals and thereby encouraged corruption. In an interview to a journalist on October 3, 2011, V. Kalyanam, Mahatma Gandhi’s personal secretary from 1943 to 1948, had said that within a month of the country’s independence Gandhiji had started receiving complaints of corruption. Kalyanam held Jawaharlal Nehru responsible “for corruption today”. Recalling an incident in November 1947, Kalyanam said that a person asked Nehru about the growing levels of corruption in India. Nehru, according to Kalyanam, replied, ‘Honourable men should not worry about a little corruption here and there.’ The person gave a suitable repartee: ‘Sir, a little corruption is like a little pregnancy, which keeps growing.’ “And, see what is happening now.”   Kalyanam said in the interview.

Much later, President Rajendra Prasad warned Nehru that corruption ‘will prove a nail in the coffin of the Congress’  and C. D. Deshmukh, a former finance minister under Nehru,  suggested setting up of a tribunal to enquiry into cases of corruption against ministers and high ranking officials.  Nehru ignored both. About the setting up of a tribunal, Nehru reportedly felt that it would “produce an atmosphere of mutual recrimination, suspicion, condemnation, charges and counter-charges and pulling each other down, in a way that it would become impossible for normal administration to function.” 

We must give credit to Lal Bahadur Shastri who as Union Home Minister set up in 1962 Santhanam “Committee on Prevention of Corruption”. On the recommendations of the committee, Shastri set up Central Vigilance Commission in February 1963. On April 1, 1963 the Home Ministry re-christened the Special Police Establishment (SPE), set up in 1941 to investigate corruption in supplies for the Second World War, as the CBI.

When Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister, basic infrastructure to fight corruption was already in position. However, she had her own agenda. As a young IRS officer in late 1968 when I joined a new post where I had to deal with income tax and wealth tax cases of most of the high and mighty of the Government of India, I inherited a file on a very high ranking military officer. A couple of years back – before I had joined the service – an ITO had established beyond doubt that the military officer had constructed a palatial building with his bribe money. When that ITO was not allowed to take action, he quietly reported the matter to the CBI but the CBA too was forced not to take any action. That high-ranking military officer, who had meanwhile been given a diplomatic assignment, was allowed to retain the loot by paying a relatively small amount of income tax on that.

In 1969, when I discovered that a high-ranking constitutional authority was in possession of illegally earned money, I incurred the wrath of the then finance minister. I succeeded in collecting tax and interest from the tax evader but the Commissioner of Income Tax who had power to impose penalty was forced to impose only a token penalty. About 3 years later, that tax evader was nominated to the Rajya Sabha.

One day, in early 1970s when I was still in the same post, a senior officer of the Department who was known for his honesty and integrity, came with a CBI officer and asked me if I could help that CBI officer to prepare dossiers on more than a dozen very senior officers whose income tax files were under my custody. I was also asked not to let anyone, not even my bosses, know about the investigations. Considering it a good cause, I extended all the help I could. A good part of investigation was completed in my room. Later, the then CBI Director along with the investigating officer went to the Prime Minister with the dossiers to seek her direction. The Prime Minister kept the dossiers and assured the CBI director that she would look into the matter. As I learnt later, no action was taken against anyone. In fact, all of them continued to thrive and enjoy the best of PPP.

Gradually, the cancer of corruption became deep-rooted and widespread. Of course, occasionally we hear of action being taken against corrupt officials and politicians but considering the magnitude of the problem that is nothing more than a token. For every officer punished, several are either not caught or if caught are left unpunished. We all know large number of corrupt officials, small as well as big, who have never been punished. In the UPA regime, even the show of action disappeared. Pliable or/and corrupt officers became investigators of crime and corruption. (True, the practice existed in the past also in the Central as well as State governments but became more daring under the UPA.) Anyone who could manage got free hand to make money. The government lost and continues to lose thousands of crores of revenue. Corrupt persons are thriving and the poor continue to suffer.

At long last we have a Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who is known for his personal integrity and decisive action. The million dollar question is: will Modi be able to check, if not completely eradicate, “Private Profit at Public Cost”?
        Devendra Narain
Feb 22, 2015