India has struggled with a series of corruption scandals that have come to light over the past eighteen months, from a telecoms scandal that is said to have cost the government up to $30 billion in lost revenue to shoddy preparations for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi.
The recent scandals have provoked a dramatic response from civil society. Longtime activist Anna Hazare began a fast unto death in April 2011 demanding the passage of a bill that has languished in Parliament since it was first proposed in the 1960s that would establish the office of a “Jan Lokpal,” or ‘People’s Ombudsman’ to investigate public corruption. His fast was accompanied by protests by thousands of people, leading the government to establish a joint committee to draft a new Jan Lokpal Bill with members from civil society and the government. The committee announced on June 21 that members were not able to reconcile their different ideas for the Bill, with major sticking points such as whether the Prime Minister should be given immunity from investigation. Two versions of the Bill will go to the Cabinet and one will be submitted to Parliament, with possible modifications.
Despite Global Integrity’s most recent assessment of the country pointing out its “struggles with promoting transparency and accountability” and challenges with implementing laws (resulting in a “Very Large” implementation gap), India appears to have relatively strong laws on the books regarding corruption. Its respectable “Legal framework” score (86/100) reflects the fact that India has developed some of the world’s most innovative transparency mechanisms, including its 2005 Right to Information Act, widely acknowledged to be a model for other countries.
India already has a Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) that serves many of the purposes of a national ombudsman and Global Integrity’s recent data suggest that it works rather well in practice.
Rather than beginning anew by establishing the Jan Lokpal, a more realistic alternative might be to reform and strengthen the CVC – shoring up its political independence, for example, or establishing its own independent investigative powers. Both of those authorities are to be included in the new Jan Lokpal position but can just as easily be incorporated into an existing institution that is not itself irredeemably corrupt.
As we recently editorialized, high-profile reforms are not always the most effective steps against corruption:
First, “do no harm”. The usual approach in most post-revolution countries is to reach for the most visible anti-corruption reforms, such as setting up a high-profile anti-corruption commission. Unfortunately, such commissions are rarely effective, particularly in Africa, and often undermine the broader reform agenda when they become politically captured. A better approach would be to focus on the boring but important bits, such as reforming a country’s legal code to require regular asset disclosures from senior officials or opening the budget process up to public debate.
There is no doubt that the recent mobilization of civil society around the issue of corruption is an unprecedented and positive change. The establishment of a high-profile Jan Lokpal will be deemed a watershed in India, but whether it would be any more effective than a strengthened CVC remains an open question.
— Mitul Bhat
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