After riding the winds of promised change, Chief Minister Sarbanda Sonowal, among other things, unleashed a ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards official corruption. This by itself was a refreshing change, considering the cynical manner his predecessor Tarun Gogoi habitually pooh-poohed at any public concern over rampant graft in government offices. But the latest incident of a senior bureaucrat caught red-handed extorting a bribe in the State Secretariat, shows how deeply the rot has set in at the very top. It is clear that large sections of officialdom are fighting back, so Sonowal has a long war of attrition on his hands if he really wants to have an administration that is clean, transparent and accountable. What is shocking about Tuesday’s arrest of the Irrigation Secretary in Dispur Secretariat — is the brazen manner he was using his office to seek ‘rent’ for clearing files of contractors. After one such harassed contractor mustered up courage to contact vigilance and anti-corruption sleuths, they laid a trap and caught the babu with the cash in hand. Going through his table drawer, the sleuths found over Rs 3 lakh which is surely no small change; and when they maged to unlock the steel almirah in that office, nearly Rs 40 lakh fell into their hands. The total haul after vigilance raid at the babu’s residence now stands over Rs 54 lakh at the prelimiry count. When people of Assam, as elsewhere in the country post-demonetisation, are still being warned of dire consequences of illegal cash hoards — this latest case of official graft caught in the act is difficult to digest. It is abundantly clear that corrupt babus have found ways to beat the ‘new system’, as they always have in the past. Here is a senior bureaucrat holding Secretary rank, about to retire in four months, stashing ill-gotten money in his office itself at the Secretariat, the very heart of the State administration. He happened to get caught, but there are many others of his ilk busy capitalizing on the offices they hold.
This ‘March ending’ is the season when top babus in Dispur rake in big money, with contractors in department after department desperately pushing their files to beat ceiling deadlines and get their bills cleared. Similar scenes are playing out elsewhere, as in many treasuries clearing bills of pending salaries (after yearly tax deductions) of teachers and government employees; reportedly, sections of treasury officials are clearing salary bills only after receiving ‘payment’. Getting a file through each table and office remains an ordeal, requiring ‘rent’ to be paid at every stopover at fixed rates. This well-oiled, smoothly running system has beaten off all challenges in the past — like the An Hazare-led ‘India Against Corruption’ demand for a citizen’s charter, which also sought a means to track the progress of files at government offices in open, time-bound manner. And from all appearances, the entrenched ‘rent’ system in government offices seems to have shaken off fast the Prime Minister’s vaunted cash ban move against black money. Few can take on the might of the bureaucracy, the ‘steel frame’ that actually runs the government, even as their political masters come and go. Bureaucrats often complain loudly against political interference, but many operate hand-in-glove with political bosses to share the spoils of office; others gripe about pay and job benefits, but that does not wash when pay commissions (the seventh one now) are regularly giving them a raise. It is not need, but outright greed, that makes babus fall over themselves to extort bribes. The exasperated contractor who put vigilance sleuths onto the Irrigation Secretary’s tail, deserves kudos from all public-spirited and right-thinking citizens. Similar gumption was shown by the dental surgeon from Amguri applying for a government job last year, whose complaint blew the lid off the cash-for-jobs scam in the Assam Public Services Commission. Chief Minister Sonowal has vowed no let-up in his government’s anti-graft drive. Not only should his government allow anti-corruption agencies to probe suspect officials and employees, it needs to follow up adequately when the cases reach prosecution stage in the courts. As for common people, the fight against official corruption must be taken very seriously. We cannot afford to be cynical about wrongdoing that keeps us bereft of development for decades on end.