A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission
The incidents, reported from two distant and separate states of India only reiterates the fact that fighting corruption is a deadly business in the country. Both victims are human rights defenders working the provisions of the Right to Information Act, 2005 to expose corruption, particularly in the execution of social welfare schemes implemented under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005, a law created to provide guaranteed employment for the country’s poor.
What is alarming however is that the two incidents are not isolated and are the most recent depictions of how persons benefiting from corruption fight back upon those who expose public frauds in India. For instance at least six right to information activists were murdered and 11 activists seriously assaulted in Maharashtra state alone in the past 14 months. Of the injured, Mr. Arun Sawant who was attacked in February 2010 for exposing fraud in land deals within the jurisdiction of Badalapur Municipal Council is permanently paralysed from the injuries he sustained. Similar incidents of brutal attack upon the activists who sought to expose public corruption have been reported widely from all over the country. Yet these incidents have provoked only isolated responses from authorities, like the statement of the Chief Information Commissioner Mr. Janat Hussain of Andhra Pradesh state who called for immediate action by the central and state governments to curb attacks upon right to information activists and other human rights defenders.
To conceive that the union or state governments would do something to prevent such attacks is however difficult. The union government itself has contributed to the deplorable environment of non-transparency in the country by the appointment of Mr. P. J. Thomas as the Central Vigilance Commissioner at the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC). The top bureaucrat quit the post, once the Supreme Court of India decided in a case filed against the government that the appointment of Mr. Thomas as the Commissioner lacked merits as he is a person suspected to be involved in corruption against which proceedings are pending in the Court of Special Judge for offenses punishable under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 in the state of Kerala, where Mr. Thomas served in several important posts, including that of the state’s Chief Secretary. The CVC is the highest government agency that is mandated to fight corruption in India.
The CVC fiasco is one more proof to the fact that the functioning of public institutions in the country is badly affected with corruption. Even the Supreme Court of India is no exception to this. Time and again senior judges and lawyers have reiterated that the country’s judiciary is not free from corruption. The most recent suspect is the former Chief Justice of India who is presently serving as the Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission, Justice K. G. Balakrishnan. The government, despite the substantial and incriminating circumstances against Balakrishnan, has failed to undertake a thorough investigation in the case. A Public Interest Litigation filed in the Supreme Court is pending against the government, in which the Court has already expressed its displeasure about the slow pace of the investigation on the allegations against the former judge. In addition to the former judge, a former Union Minister is also facing investigation for corruption. Yet another alleged swindler, Mr. Hasan Ali Khan, is also facing investigations for corruption and financial frauds, which in its course is exposing the nexus between Khan’s ill-gotten wealth and the political and bureaucratic elite in Maharashtra.
The anomalies in the two set of cases, of those involving some of the most influential persons in the country and that those involve petty contractors who are suspected to be behind the assault of right to information activists, is that while the amounts involved in cases concerning the former judge, the minister and Mr. Khan are mind boggling, amounting to millions, the cases in which poor human rights and right to information activists were assaulted or have lost their lives involves petty corruption of relatively small amounts of money. Though the scenario exposes corruption at both extremes, probably it is the corruption at the lower level that directly affects the poor. One may also argue that corruption at both levels serve each other and that today in India, there is no serious attempt to prevent it.
Even the media is no exception to this. The recent news about some of former self-proclaimed ‘celebrity’ scribes in the country involving in ‘deal fixing’ scams proves this. It is in the midst of all these the Prime Minister of India has expressed his apologies in the parliament, about the mistake his office committed of having recommended Mr. Thomas to head the CVC.
Admitting a mistake however will not solve the problem that the country today faces. What is required is concentrated action by the government and all other stakeholders, including the civil society and the general public to deal with corruption, which has eaten into all the pillars of the country’s democratic framework.
There are several examples across the world where determined governments have cracked down corruption effectively and have kept the society satisfactorily immune from corruption then on. The Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) in Hong Kong is a reasonably successful example within the region. Unlike India, Hong Kong does not have a right to information law. Yet, the territory is able to control corruption to such an extent that today, offering a person bribe is considered to be an insult upon the person’s integrity and often immediately reported to the authorities.
This was possible in Hong Kong only because the ICAC has the complete support of the administration to undertake its mandate and an as organisation it was built, preserved and equipped to deliver what it was expected to do. Not surprisingly, one of the first targets of the ICAC was the Hong Kong’s police force. This was not because that no other agencies in Hong Kong were corrupt at the time, but was an action on the basis of a clear understanding that unless the policing system is freed from the grips of corruption, fighting corruption would be impossible and thus a meaningless exercise.
In addition, the ICAC did not have police officers on deputation to serve at the ICAC. What is visible in Hong Kong’s success model are three main features: (1) The ICAC has an independent mandate to investigate corruption and the administration supported it; (2) The ICAC was made of officers with impeccable records, selected, trained and equipped to do their job; and (3) There were no officers from the local police that served at the ICAC, a norm the institution follows even today.
ce the establishment of the ICAC, corruption in Hong Kong not only reduced drastically, but also pushed Hong Kong economically forward, that today the territory is considered as a safe business centre in Asia. The ICAC’s success model has been emulated in other bigger countries like Australia and studied by experts who work for governments that are serious in eliminating corruption.
In India however, prevention of corruption is an unwelcome pill for the government. While appointments like that of Mr. Thomas is made for top jobs, officers from the police are often deputed to work for corruption prevention agencies. The officers working for these agencies lack both training and equipment. Though Indian experts design software and sophisticated technologies for the rest of the world, most of it is not used domestically, that even today a proper finger print examination or a DNA analysis will take years, if not decades to be completed and such facilities are often unavailable for law enforcement agencies in many parts of the country.
Even though the entire justice system, despite having reduced to a crude joke as an inept institution shackled with delays, incapable judges and poor prosecutors, the country is yet to devote serious attention to this institution. There is neither a vision nor comprehensive plans by the government to deal with the brutal violence committed by the law enforcement agencies throughout the country with near to absolute impunity. The draft law against torture proposed by the government in 2010 speaks volumes about how little the government is interested in disciplining the country’s police. With visible and serious defects affecting the country’s justice institutions, there could be hardly any motivation for the public to react against corruption. On the contrary, corruption becomes a lubricant to make a broken and demoralised system to work, for those who can afford to let the system work.
The result of this neglect is widely visible in the country and it is also clear to the public, that those who benefits from this chaotic environment intentionally created are the politicians, the rich, dishonest government officers including the police and the corrupt elements in the country’s judiciary.
In the mêlée of this rotten environment, the Prime Minister’s apology in the parliament is just not to the members of the legislature, but to the whole nation. If no further actions follow, this apology will go down the drain as yet one more attempt to hoodwink the country, and would mean nothing and do anything to change the unacceptable status quo.