Monday, 28 September 2009

The Accountability Debate: What should we focus on?

Prashant Sharma

The accountability debate rages on. Fuelled by a more aware, more demanding public, in part galvanised by the introduction of progressive laws such as the Right to Information Act, the questioning is coming thick and fast. All the organs of government - the executive, the legislature and the judiciary - seem to be slowly but surely coming under a proto-panoptical public perspective. Demands are also taking shape to increase accountability of the media to the public. Sporadic attempts are also being made to introduce mechanisms to make the private sector more accountable.

In the midst of this important, if breathless clamour for more accountable institutions and more transparent social, political and economic structures, perhaps it is important to take a step back and go to the roots of the issues involved and take stock of the direction in which the debate is moving.

The present demand for accountability from public authorities in India can be traced to the deep rooted problem of corruption which has plagued our public institutions for decades. If our independence struggle was unique in the history of the world for it was premised on values and principles, post-independence saw first a gradual and then an exponential erosion of ethics in public life. However, the issue of corruption needs to be understood at least at three different levels.

First, the small, low level, petty corruption which plagues the life of the average citizen each time there is any interaction between her and the state has touched practically everyone in the country at some point in their lives. A few hundred rupees here to get an application looked at, a few thousand rupees there to get funds released under a government scheme – incidents such as these number in the millions everyday.

Then there are the medium level scams, particularly in the context of public works - inflating costs, not delivering on agreed terms of quality and quantity, works existing on paper but not physically, and payoffs up and down the chain of administration and governance. In a country as large as ours, and with innumerable small and medium public works being carried out every day, the stakes are high, and it would probably not be an exaggeration to say that almost all such projects have some cushion or buffer built in which facilitates leakage on an unimaginable scale.

Finally, we come to the most invisible of practices when it comes to the ordinary citizen – that which involve large deals. These could be kickbacks in defence deals, payoffs in tweaking policy to suit one interest group over the other, and so on. While some of these deals are exposed and come to the fore as scandals (and have on occasion even brought down governments), the bureaucratic-political combine has perfected the art of obfuscating the processes through which such decisions are made. When telephone calls or post-its are prefaced with “The minister desires that…”, one can typically expect a smooth sailing for the process in question.

These three types of practices require different accountability responses. The first two are the ones often highlighted by the media, particularly since the Right to Information Act came into force. Stories of successful usage of the Act abound, where ordinary citizens have received their ration cards and passports without having to pay the mandatory bribes, and where diversions of funds meant for public works have been unearthed (though rarely has anyone been held personally accountable and legally convicted). While these are welcome instances and must be supported, encouraged and strengthened in all ways possible, an effective and consistent accountability framework in response to the third type of practice of corruption has still not emerged.

One substantial reason for this is a sense of impunity. Our judicial system has fundamentally failed us. With backlogs in courts, both at the lower as well as appellate levels, running into decades, there is virtually no fear in the minds of either the political class or the senior bureaucracy that they might be brought to book legally for their malfeasant actions. At this point, we are not even talking about corruption in courts – simply the procedural delays are such that in themselves they provide ample reason to support a sense of utter impunity on the part of wrongdoers. There is therefore a clear and direct link between an impartial, efficient and effective justice system and the establishment of a culture of transparent decision making processes. If the former does not exist, accountability at the higher levels of governance will remain scraps handed out on the whims of those in power. An effective justice system therefore is a necessary precondition to any of the changes we hope to see it the accountability landscape of the country.

Second, is perhaps a more fundamental question, that of the need for money on such a large scale. When it comes to large deals, the amount of money which changes hands is virtually unimaginable. The desire to increase personal wealth alone cannot explain the immensity of this scale. The answer lies in the ways in which our elections are financed. It is practically impossible to contest elections (successfully) in India without very deep pockets. Political parties need money to run elections, they source this money from either interest groups or from public funds, and then once in power, this ‘favour’ has to be returned, either through favourable policies, or through providing a secure environment to the entire machinery which facilitated the siphoning of funds. The result is a spiralling vortex of deceit and dishonesty which cannot be attenuated until and unless the entire practice of electoral politics is fundamentally restructured.

Finally, the issue of accountability is deeply linked to the basic question of morality. Corruption, as we know, starts at the top. If the moral fabric of the political class at the top remains in shreds (the excuse of election financing notwithstanding), this has a definitional impact on the way the hundreds of thousands of middle and lower level representatives and functionaries of the state conduct themselves. Once everyone is implicated, there can be no blame, there can be no sanctions, there can be no justice, and there can be no accountability.

In sum then, the two specific areas which pose the greatest challenges to our developing a truly accountable social, political and economic system is that of judicial reform and election financing. Once these two issues are effectively addressed, all else will fall into place. It might be better to direct our energies in bringing about substantial changes in these two areas, for on the morality question, it is best to relegate any hopes of change to the realm of imagination and fantasy.

Prashant Sharma is doing his PhD at the London School of Economics on the politics of public policy reform, particularly in the context of accountability and transparency mechanisms. For more about his work, please click here.

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