gfiles magazine

April 19, 2011

Culture of Impunity

Civil servants, once the bedrock of probity in public life, are now tainted as the pillars that support the edifice of dishonesty, sleaze and bribery
THE Joshi couple—Tinu and Arvind—both senior IPS officers, are headed towards jail for making only one big mistake. They did not stash away the money they managed to amass in 32 years of service in accounts in some foreign banks! That was what some senior man in civil service told a correspondent jocularly. Not necessarily Swiss banks he was talking of, for being in the service he knows there are too many of those in different countries and administered areas. His point was simple: had the Joshis done so they could have avoided all harassment simply by paying income tax.
One may ask, how? “The Finance Minister of the country,” the officer pointed out, “made it clear that the inviolable agreements the Indian government is signing with those countries makes no room for hunting the source of the income.”
If you cannot recall this IAS couple we are talking of, that is not your fault. Each day one more instance of corruption tumbles out of the government cupboard. It is another matter that the Prime Minister of the country feels that such a scam-tainted image of the country should not be flashed in the media so prominently. If our Prime Minister were not a man of such impeccable personal integrity, one would have thought his intent was to shield the corrupt. That not being the case, we may conclude that he actually made this appeal in his interaction with visual media editors on February 16 only to cover his inefficiency in dealing with the cobweb of corruption that has caught even his colleagues. And, for us, these new revelations every day have made it too difficult to remember the characters involved. However, the suspended IAS couple stands out among the other civil servants for their extraordinary feat.

If our Prime Minister were not a man of such impeccable personal integrity, one would have thought his intent was to shield the corrupt.

It is not so relevant that Arvind was in George Fernandes’ team in the Defence Ministry in the NDA days, serving as a Joint Secretary during the Kargil war, and his wife served as the secretary general of the Federation of Indian Export Organisations (FIEO) when Kamal Nath was the Commerce Minister during the UPA’s first term. What is relevant is the 7,000-page Income Tax report submitted to MP Chief Secretary Avni Vaish and Lokayukt PV Naolekar, according to which these two officers, serving the MP government before being suspended, own 400 acres of land and 25 flats. The worth of all these exceeds Rs 360 crore. Very interestingly, out of 25 flats the Joshis have, 18 are in Guwahati.
What punishment is awarded to these two IAS officers of the 1979 batch, we will come to know in future. That will give us a clue to whether the nation will be able to fight corruption in the future or not. Till now, the Lokayukt has not initiated action against them as the relevant documents from the state government are still awaited.

Arvind was in George Fernandes’ team in the Defence Ministry during the Kargil war, and his wife served as the secretary general of the Federation of Indian Export Organizations.

Now, there may be few other officers who can compete with the magnitude of corruption of the Joshis. But smaller icons abound. Fifty-six-year-old AK Srivastava was arrested recently along with his wife for amassing huge wealth. This man had worked for two decades with the National Thermal Power Corporation Ltd. Then he moved on to Cement Corporation of India and then to NALCO. This mechanical engineer, a product of Delhi IIT, rose to be chairman-cum-managing director, and then was caught by the CBI. His wife was nabbed by the agency when she was trying to salvage some of the family’s ill-gotten assets from a locker in a branch of the Bank of Maharashtra. According to the CBI, astonishingly, the locker was not in the name of the Srivastavas. What has been recovered from the couple is peanuts in comparison to the Joshi couple, only 10 kg gold (worth Rs 2 crore) and Rs 30 lakh in cash. The officer amassed this much wealth—and remember the investigation is on to unearth further connections and wealth—by taking bribes. Sometime back, some bank officials were arrested on the same charges. But bribery still rules government dealings, and little hope of a great cleansing beams out of the system.
TALK of civil servants neck-deep in corruption and they are seen everywhere. The Adarsh Housing Society or 2G spectrum cases are well known. Here the difference with the Joshis is in involvement of other players along with the bureaucrats. In the 2G scam, politicians and bureaucrats came together to carry on a game, for years together, of doling out favours and bending the rules whenever necessary to disfavour the others. Now, the persons who we were told were doing wonders in the telecom sector are heading towards jail. But not because of the government of the day.Rather, we can say, despite the government, the law has started taking its course. Previously, despite many allegations from the BJP and the Left, Manmohan Singh never bothered to act. In fact, as we may deduct from what he said in the press conference on February 16, he did not find any reason either to act against officers like Siddharth Behura, who is now in CBI custody, or A Raja. Strangely, as soon as they took up the files, the CAG found so many irregularities. ven the Shivraj Patil Committee named so many officers working since 2001 for acting in some peculiar way to favour one or the other company.
The Adarsh scandal involved the top brass of the Army apart from the combination of bureaucrats and politicians. hile hearing a petition on the Adarsh Co-operative Housing Society scam, in which the bureaucrats who cleared the key files in the revenue and urban development departments were gifted flats in the Society, the court asked why no action was being taken against these officers. The court described the scam as “a clear-cut case of manipulation” by the bureaucrats.
THIS nexus and shielding repeats itself time and again, and often follows the same model. People talk of the Commonwealth Games. No, not of the extravaganza in a poor country, we are talking of the quintessential corruption that still stirs middle- and upper-class emotions. But, was it not known that, given the humongous amount of money involved, there would be huge corruption which would later be condoned? Otherwise, why would Manmohan and Sonia Gandhi say that everything would be investigated after the Games when the charges started tumbling out more than a month before their commencement? That was long enough time to cover up the misdeeds. And, this was not the first time that officials and others were making huge money out of purchases. This was not the first time that the highest authorities of the country were condoning all these. Let us see why.

The dirt just piles up
? In October 2009 five government departments were asked to submit their reports on action taken against corrupt officials after India’s ambassador to the US, Meera Shankar, complained of millions of dollars being paid in bribes to government officials. The Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) was ordered to look into the matter and to coordinate with the CBI. Shankar wrote a letter on May 12 of that year to TKA Nair, the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, and mentioned bribe amounts paid by US companies to officials of the Indian Navy, Maharashtra State Electricity Board, Indian Railways, Indian Central Insecticides Board and other unnamed senior officials to secure government contracts. It denoted involvement of five departments: the Maharashtra State Electricity Board, Agriculture Ministry, Railways, Defence Ministry and the Department of Revenue. Along with them, even Customs and Excise was said to be involved. In one instance, Shankar cited a bribe of $132,500 given to Indian Navy officials by an agent of York International orporation, a global provider of heating, air conditioning and refrigeration products. The money was transferred over a period of six years (2000- 2006) for placing 215 orders. What is interesting is that a majority of the pay-offs happened when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance was in power, but it continued even after the Congress-led UPA came to power.

The Joshi couple—Tinu (above) and Arvind (left)—both senior IPS officers, are headed towards jail for making only one big mistake. They did not stash away the huge amount in accounts in some foreign banks!

No one knows whether a single person has been punished for these deals. The basis for Shankar’s letter was a US government report on the prosecutions carried out under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FPCA), a federal law prohibiting US companies from paying foreign government officials to gain a business advantage.

? Now, one example to show how big the net of corruption can grow when influential bureaucrats get involved. In March 2009, the Kashmir government’s top anti-corruption body, the State Vigilance Organization (SVO), registered a case against seven top bureaucrats for “misuse of official position for illegal transfer of state land” at Gulmarg to influential private parties. The officers allegedly violated the provisions of the Roshni Act which was introduced to give ownership rights of government land to those farmers across the State who were occupying them. In this particular instance, the land that was transferred to private parties was earmarked for development of tourist infrastructure under the master plan of the Gulmarg Development Authority (GDA). According to the Vigilance Organization, a case under the Prevention of Corruption Act was slapped against Mehboob Iqbal, then Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir, Baseer Khan, District Collector, Garib Singh, Tehsildar, Tangmarg, Farooq Ahmed Lone, Chief Executive Officer, Gulmarg Development Authority, Farooq Ahmed Shah, Additional Deputy Commissioner, Sarmad Hafiz, Joint Director, Tourism Department, Rafi Ahmad, Assistant Commissioner, Revenue, Baramulla, and Ghulam Mohiu-Din Shah, Naib Tehsildar, Kunzar, for misuse of official position for illegal transfer of State land.

Shankar (centre) wrote to the principal secretary and mentioned bribes paid by US companies to officials of the Indian Navy, Maharashtra State Electricity Board and so on.

? If that was an example of misdeeds at the ground level, the Antrix-Devas agreement was an example of wrong-doing (otherwise why should the government cancel it?) at a very high level. We do not know why ISRO went for an agreement with Devas and why five years later the Space Commission recommended scrapping of the deal. We do not know why, even after the recommendations, the government took eight months to take the final call. What we understand is that a lot of interests merged. And we know there will be no real punishment awarded to anyone for playing with the national interest.

? This impunity factor has emboldened a whole lot of people—bureaucrats and others who deal with them. Otherwise, there was no reason to appoint PJ Thomas Chief Vigilance Commissioner despite a plea for his prosecution hanging fire. Whether the charge is serious or frivolous, whether there is an iota of evidence against Thomas or not is irrelevant. One cannot be given charge of looking after all vigilance matters if there exists even one faint question mark against one’s name. Ignoring even that faint question mark is unethical. Still, Manmohan and P Chidambaram—both immune to taking bribes—selected him for reasons not known to us. Was it because there was an acute dearth of untainted officers?

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