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End to corruption: Is this the magic wand?

Aug 26, 2011 2:30:24 PM - www.ft.lk

By Jayantha Prasud Sittampalam
Anna Hazare’s popular agitation and protest fast begun unexpectedly at Tihar jail (the same syllables as Tahrir Square – an omen, or coincidence?) and then moved to Ramlila Park has thrown the spotlight on the issue of corruption in India, and people from all classes have gathered behind this septuagenarian adherent of Mahatma Gandhi like children to the pied piper. Will their face a similar fate to that of the children in the hands of the rat catcher in Grimm brothers’ fairy tale?

The solution to the problem of corruption is simple, easy to set in motion and straightforward to implement to enforce but don’t hold your breath until governments or political parties sitting in parliament (governments-in-waiting) to implement it. It’s simply not in their interest to do it. Why should they when they stand to gain the most out of not ending corruption?

Little wonder then, that the successive parliaments over 40 years have only paid lip service to voting the Lokpal Bill in to law. Why should it be any different this time?
The public keeps corruption alive
Willingly or otherwise, the public keeps corruption alive. Because the public cannot get anything done without paying a bribe, a solution that demands the public immediately stop paying bribes will fail. It’s the system, stupid. Anyone will tell you that.
Economists and academics may give many reasons, but the sad fact is government officials, in the main, are paid ridiculously low salaries. For sure, not all corrupt officials are naturally bent or happy about it, but they have bills to pay too.
Lower level state employees such as peons, constables, clerks, teachers and workers are forced in to accepting ‘gifts’ to supplement their meagre incomes. If they didn’t make the ‘little something’ on the side, how will they get their children through school and college, look after their sick mothers, help their near and dear in times of trouble? The alternative is to turn to violent crime, embezzlement or begging.
Let’s say, for arguments sake, that bribery and corruption are eradicated completely. Let’s assume that beautiful utopia we all dream of is here, right now. What will happen? Have we thought about the impact a complete and immediate elimination of corruption will have on the economy?
We are, naturally, more lavish with ill-gotten gains than with hard-earned money. High end restaurants, fashion boutiques, hairdressers, architects, artisans and a plethora of others that depend on high rollers for their livelihood and success may find business drying up. How will they cope with the sudden and drastic loss of income?
Corruption is so deeply embedded in society that to suddenly and completely uproot it would leave a hole so large that the entire edifice of civil society may collapse in to it – dragging everyone in to black void of anarchy, governed by mob law and war lords.
Perhaps this is what Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meant when he confessed that he had no magic wand to make corruption just disappear; not before Anna Hazare was martyred in a death fast, anyhow.
What is the solution?
What then is the solution? Whatever it is, it must be gradual, systemic and participatory, not parliamentary. Moreover, society and the corrupt must get time to adjust to the new system. The corrupt should be re-integrated as free and fair citizens sharing equally the rights, responsibilities, privileges, duties and obligations as contributing members of society. Society must get the breathing space it needs to accept the new order, without descending in to anarchy.
More than anything else, it must be a system that cannot be itself corrupted. A gradual tightening of screws resulting in a measured decline in corruption leading to a society that has so few who are corrupt that they are the dregs of society rather than the leading lights of it (like now) – is it too much to ask? An inclusive strategy that provides for a system which embraces all segments of society – and gives everyone an equal opportunity to live open and honest economic lives. Such a strategy is outlined below.
Third Watch: The world’s first public evaluation mechanism to reward good public service
It is a citizen’s initiative needing only a tiny nudge and nod from government. And no government can legitimately or logically refuse to since it already utilises such a system with policemen, who are required to wear on duty, a clearly visible number on their breasts. Make this compulsory for all government officials who wear a number/code that is clearly visible (from at least 15 paces?) and we’ve got all we need for a viable system to stop corruption now!
The rest is in the hands of civil society. Members of the public now commend or criticise public officials for the quality of service and courtesy extended to them by simply quoting their number/code!
Since most people now have access to a mobile phone they can dial a toll free number and quote the official’s number/code assigning a plus (+) or minus (–) sign at the end or beginning of it, to convey their personal evaluation of the quality of service and conduct of their public servants. A double minus evaluation (–) could mark out bribe takers; and service above and beyond the call of duty get a double plus evaluation (++).
Third Watch Control Centre collects and counts all negative and positive evaluations of public servants and posts them on a website, and publishes the statistics of the best and worst of them through mass media. Voila! Everyone knows who’s corrupt and who’s honest.
Those who get positive evaluations get rewards and those who get negative evaluations get named and shamed. The public and private sector can contribute to the rewards scheme. Those private sector entities that don’t, well, the public can judge their motives for itself and favour or reject their products and services and employment opportunities accordingly.
What will be the reaction of those named and shamed as corrupt? What will they do? First they will protest, stating that it is the result of concerted conspiracy initiated by their enemies. But then the mental anguish will begin. Third Watch does not have to react to these accusations, nor worry about libel suits since it has every mobile number from which the evaluations emanated.
But the risk of being named and shamed will inevitably act as a deterrent to those soliciting for bribes thereafter. Uncertain whether the person agreeing to pay the bribe (or insisting that the official accept a bribe) will punch in a negative evaluation or not, they would have to either desist or live in fear of exposure again till the next date the evaluations are published. It may not stop corruption altogether, but it will definitely make it that much more difficult to continue with impunity like now.
Adding to their misery, are honest officials who now enjoy not only rewards but also the respect of an adoring public – which may prove sufficient to affect the necessary change.
Rewards scheme
How rewards are fashioned also need our attention, to ensure that they are not only attractive but are not open to abuse. Career and education enhancement, material gifts, land holidays, elevations to public bodies and support for children and family welfare may be some of them, but perhaps there are other needs that only government officials will know best.
But one thing is certain, public commendation is a must. For they are now the highest in the land, presiding over public institutions, leading public conduct by example. Inevitably they would now be invited to open events and edifices, cited for good conduct and held in the highest esteem for their courtesy and good service. It is a self fulfilling prophesy coming true and therefore compliance is built in.
Sure, all of this may sound too good to be true, and perhaps may not reach as lofty and idealistic standards as expected. The only certainty is that people can now openly identify the corrupt who can no longer expect to carelessly lord over the public while feeding off them. Isn’t that alone enough to consider a scheme so simple that it can be launched at a cost that a middle class individual can afford?
(The writer is a communication professional working in advertising and PR for the last 31 years. He is Chief Strategist and Managing Director of a company founded in 1996, Cameron Pale and Medina, which employs a pioneering concept of communication called inclusive communication. At the heart of it is the idea that dissonance between direct, indirect and non-verbal communication reduces power and diminishes impact of messages and aligning them makes for resonance and clarity. He lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka, with his three children.)

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