WITH EYES WIDE OPEN
D. N. Bezboruah
We have the misfortune to be living in the most corrupt State of the country where corrupt practices have been greatly encouraged during the last 14 years because the government has failed to punish a single officer involved in corruption. Thousands of crores of rupees received from the Centre as development grants have been either misappropriated, siphoned out or spent without the submission of utilization certificates. It is hardly surprising that the Centre that had been unduly indulgent to the Congress-run State government during the UPA regime has ceased to be so indulgent and forgiving of serious fincial lapses. It has not only cut down drastically on Central allocations to Assam, but has also been insisting on the submission of all utilization certificates due to the Centre. This fincial strictness and the Centre’s decision to stop treating the States of the Northeast as special category States has angered the Assam Chief Minister no end. His present stand on the suspension of grossly misused Central grants is astonishing to say the least, because it reflects a total disregard of fincial discipline and proper accounting procedures.
In such a climate of total lack of fincial discipline, it is hardly surprising that corruption should have plumbed such low depths in Assam during the last 14 years. And the total failure to punish any wrongdoers despite brave statements about confiscating properties of corrupt officials has been viewed by such officers as an endorsement of total fincial indiscipline and siphoning of public money by the powers that be. What this has done to our perception of corruption is to strengthen the equation that corruption is solely related to money. However, very recently we have had serious allegations of nepotism in the selection of candidates to the civil service by the Assam Public Service Commission (APSC). The major allegation is that the relatives of ministers and MLAs domite the list of selected candidates. According to a report in a leading a daily, the Chairman of the APSC even got some candidates to submit blank answer scripts at the examition that were not signed by the invigilators. According to the newspaper report, these candidates were later summoned to the Chairman’s residence and permitted to write down the correct dictated answers under the supervision of the APSC Chairman. Nepotism of this order was not common experience in Assam. True, nepotism has been quite rampant in the selection of college teachers by governing bodies. However, for some reason or the other, nepotism has been regarded as a less harmful form of corruption than corrupt practices that directly involve money. However, nepotism in the selection of civil servants does ultimately involve money because candidates of some lawbreaking lawmakers and the blue-eyed boys of political bigwigs get into government service with the principal objective of making money and siphoning off very substantial Central funds allocated to the State. All said and done, the main worry about corruption among the law-abiding citizens is corrupt practices that directly involve money and the kind of corruption that leads to the acquisition of disproportiote assets far in excess of one’s known sources of income. The pattern is not very different in other parts of India as well. The recent Kartaka High Court judgement that acquitted Jayalalithaa of the charges of having acquired assets totally disproportiote to her known sources of income has come as a rude shock to most people. Apart from the Kartaka High Court judgement having completely thrown overboard the judgement of the trial court, there are legitimate apprehensions that the High Court judge committed a mistake in calculating Jayalalithaa’s total assets (including loans) and the extent to which they were in excess of her known sources of income. And since the High Court cannot undo its own judgement, an appeal will have to be made to the Supreme Court for a proper review of Jayalalithaa’s assets and for a bit of more efficient arithmetic.
Any government promising the people achche din without too much of a delay will have to get down to the business of tackling corruption. And since it may not be possible to tackle the entire gamut of corrupt practices at one go, it might make better sense to take on the most prominent facet of corruption in our country and to ensure that charity begins at home. Both objectives can be achieved to a large extent by addressing corrupt practices that result in assets disproportiote to known sources of income and by starting with government officers. After all, corrupt practices are confined mainly to government offices and officers. The modus operandi would be to start with the monthly expenses of bureaucrats. This investigation would have to take into account the monthly expenses on fuel and food items like rice and pulses, milk, eggs, meat, fish, rice, wheat, vegetables and fruit. Then there would be an assessment of the school fees paid for children, expenses on clothing and jewellery, medicines, life insurance and travel. I have left out house rent because for many officers who live in government quarters, the rent is a nomil percentage of their basic pay and does not count for much. But for other officers who do not live in government quarters, house rent could be a major item of expenditure. The crux of the matter would be finding the right agency to undertake this investigation. Obviously, one cannot entrust this task to a government officer who will do everything possible to protect his fraternity. It will have to be handed over to a reputed private agency, and can begin as a pilot project involving officers who are known to be among the most corrupt. But once the investigations begin, alarm bells will begin to ring down the line. In most cases the regular expenses of the family will turn out to be far in excess of the officer’s salary. Even so, it will be discovered that many officers do not spend even their entire salaries. Most of them avail of perquisites they are not entitled to, such as using their official vehicles and government fuel to ferry their children to and from school. They will find it extremely difficult to hide all their expenses. And when their expenses are probed and marshalled we shall also discover that despite their family expenses being much higher than their known sources of income, they have maged to buy an apartment in Delhi, Noida, Ghaziabad or Ferozepur. Once the mismatch between salary and expenses is established, it will be time to remind Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi that he had promised to ect a law that would eble the government to attach the ill-gotten assets of government officers. The people of Assam should insist on his honouring that promise.
But will that alone take us to better days? Not right away. Not until there is a device and the political will to tackle some of his ministers as well who charge exorbitant amounts from officers for every transfer in addition to regular monthly payments. These ministers, in collusion with some bureaucrats have maged to drain the exchequer to a point that makes it impossible for the government to pay salaries on time. He would also have to control ministers and MLAs who run the cartels and syndicates that send prices of vegetables and essential commodities shooting up to the great distress of the people. The Chief Minister has had to come out with bizarre statements telling government employees that salaries cannot be paid regularly because development work is going on. In which other country are people expected to be satisfied with such explations for the government’s ibility to pay salaries regularly?
We all remember how Tarun Gogoi had been at the forefront of chief ministers who ected the Right to Information Bill with a promise of ensuring transparency and accountability in governce when he first became Chief Minister in 2001. In a matter of just 14 years all the good intentions appear to have evaporated. In fact, the wheel has turned full circle, and we now have the Chief Minister advising people to approach the APSC under the provisions of the Right to Information Act in order to know about the performance of candidates at the controversial selection examition of the APSC. How cynical can a chief minister be about his own government?