The stories I get the most satisfaction from are usually about the neglected margins of India, where struggle is enmeshed with life. The ones I will upload have been written for The Sunday Guardian and (the now defunct) Covert Magazine. I'll be putting up any articles here at least until The Sunday Guardian website is up in a couple of months. Thank you for reading.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Committees & Corruption, PAC & UPA

The principal objection most serious commentators have with Anna Hazare’s Lokpal Bill is that its solution to the intractable corruption assailing India is, at its core, undemocratic. A self-appointed body, accountable to no one except that most vague of entities, “the people of India”, should not be seen as a long-term answer. Spurious tapes and Amar Singh aside (and even if the body consisted only of men and women of unimpeachable integrity), it is in the nature of power to engender corruption; handing the power of oversight to any group only succeeds in enlarging the circle of those in the position to be corrupt.

Economists, in their cold, calculated fashion, do not pronounce judgment on corruption. They see it as an example of rent-seeking, a natural human activity. Any human being with monopoly access to a finite resource, such as land, will seek to extract value for use of that resource. Governmental corruption occurs because we give people monopoly power over certain decisions. At the highest level, when these decisions are worth hundreds of crores of rupees, it is in the self-interest of everyone, corporation, politician and bureaucrat, to cheat. Even the most well-meaning individuals cannot solve this problem. What is needed is the strengthening of already existing institutions.

The Constituent Assembly that drafted the Constitution of India recognised this human frailty. The separation of the three arms of government, the executive, legislature and judiciary is so that each acts as a check on the other’s excesses. One of the great problems of the Indian democratic experience has been the manner in which the executive (the Government of India) has established its primacy. This is less true of the judiciary, but the influence of the legislature (Parliament) has over these sixty years slowly corroded until it has reached its contemporary role of glorified gathering ground.

We often forget that the Government is not the representation of the people’s will: Parliament is. As the surprise appointment of Manmohan Singh in 2004 illustrated so clearly, we have no real say in who will become Prime Minister. Reestablishing the authority of the legislature is a necessary check on government excess. This is why the unseemly squabbling and name-calling that has surrounded the Murli Manohar Joshi-led Public Accounts Committee is especially harmful.

While most of the legislation debated and passed in the legislature is of only passing interest (if that), it is in the working of its committees that the legislature can truly exercise its influence. The Public Accounts Committee is perhaps the most important of these committees; it exists to supervise the spending of government. The UPA agreed to place the mismanagement of 2G telecom spectrum under the PAC’s scanner. Now because the most senior members of government are being held to account, it is attempting to undercut the body’s authority by maligning the individuals involved in its preparation.

The “rejection” of the report by the UPA members of the PAC is a clear indication that the executive is trying once again to influence the legislature. If Manmohan Singh’s UPA government is serious about curbing corruption – and so far there has been no indication that they are interested in anything other than the most superficial of overhauls – they must allow the PAC to do its job.