Volume 19 Number 3
Declaring War on a Brutal Killer
01 June 2006

Corruption and world poverty are inextricably linked. Mike Brown and Chris Breitenberg discover how Indian bureaucrats and industrialists are cutting the knot.
INDIA’S ‘GOLDEN Quadri-lateral Highway’ project—a 5,846 kilometre loop linking New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Kolkata—is a symbol of national pride in this emerging economic power. Clogged pot-holed roads are being replaced by fast-moving corridors, estimated ultimately to save the economy US$2 billion a year.

But one man’s tragedy has made the Golden Quadrilateral a symbol for something darker. Satyendra Dubey, a 31-year-old civil engineer, repeatedly complained to his superiors about the ‘loot of public money’ he saw on his part of the project in Jharkand. Finally, in November 2002, he wrote to the Prime Minister, detailing the corruption and naming names. He pleaded that his name be kept secret. A year later, after his letter had made its way down the bureaucratic chain and the Central Bureau of Investigation was involved, Dubey was shot.

His murder, along with the deaths of other whistle-blowers, is shifting something in India. ‘The world starts praising, posthumously,’ said his brother, Dhananjay Dubey, at a forum conducted by the Indian Express in Delhi last December. ‘But who works to eradicate that brutal murderer, corruption? We hear of scams, the indispensable bribe at each stage of government machinery, the nexus between politicians and criminals, the corrupt bureaucracy. It’s high time we introspect on the depth to which corruption has seeped into our system, weakening its very roots.’

Confronted by Dubey’s stark challenge, the President of India, Abdul Kalam, responded: ‘When such a sacrifice takes place, we have to change. We can’t let the problem become our master. Transparency has to become a way of life.’

Many NGOs and networks have taken up the cause. Among those campaigning, interestingly, are some from the group that is often blamed for the malaise of corruption: government bureaucrats.

In January 2003, a number of them visited Asia Plateau, the Initiatives of Change (IofC) centre in the small town of Panchgani in the Western Ghats, for a conference on the opportunities and threats of globalisation for India. There serving politicians, members of the Planning Commission, senior bureaucrats, business leaders, academics and journalists got down to some of that honest ‘introspection’ which Dubey is calling for.

One of those challenged was Prabhat Kumar who, as Cabinet Secretary under three prime ministers, had reached the zenith of India’s civil service. Soon after the conference, speaking to colleagues in the elite Indian Administrative Service (IAS), Kumar spoke of India’s half century since independence as a period of ‘shame for higher bureaucracy’. In the ten years up to 2002 India had enjoyed a 6.5 per cent growth rate, but the number of the poorest had grown by 6 million. ‘The Supreme Court has reiterated the constitutional right of every citizen to live in dignity. There are 250 million people living in absolute poverty in this country who have been deprived of dignity in every sense.’ Much blame lay with political leaders. But, concluded Kumar, ‘I and my ilk are also responsible for this pitiable situation.’

Kumar and colleagues from the IAS held a series of brainstorming meetings with business leaders around India. They identified two broad priorities: ‘improving governance’ and ‘creating ethical leadership’. They approached 96 carefully selected public figures, who became the founding members of the ‘IC Centre for Governance’. It was officially launched in Delhi during December 2003 by Justice M N Venkatachaliah, former Chief Justice of India.

Today the Centre for Governance has 300 founding members—including serving and retired judges, state governors, members of parliament, top civil servants, academics, industrialists, economists, civil society activists and media personalities. Justice Venkatachaliah and Shri Abid Hussain, former Indian Ambassador to the USA, co-chair its 27-member governing council.

In parallel, a group of business leaders, led by Sarosh Ghandy, former Executive Director of Tata Motors, invited IofC’s Caux Initiatives for Business to hold an international conference on governance at Asia Plateau in 2004. There company directors proud of their endeavours for corporate social responsibility found themselves interacting with grassroots community activists.

Three months later, in Bangalore, the Centre for Ethical Leadership (CENTREL) was inaugurated by R Gopalakrishnan, Executive Director of Tata Sons, at the prestigious Indian Institute of Management. Like its counterpart in Delhi, the Centre will operate under the umbrella of Initiatives of Change. In May 2005, B Muthuraman, the Managing Director of Tata Steel, announced his company would build a Tata Centre for Ethics in the eastern industrial city of Jamshedpur, and asked CENTREL to run it.

Back in 2004, at the launch of CENTREL, Sarosh Ghandy spelled out its approach: ‘Ethical leadership cannot be taught; it has to be experienced. And it is here where we feel CENTREL will be different from the scores of other training programmes on ethical leadership. We hope to demonstrate that the individual is the most powerful agent of change and can bring about change by applying moral standards in his or her organisation or institution, making it competitive and efficient.’

That approach was put to the test with 25 training programmes at Asia Plateau in the following 12 months, coordinated by CENTREL—for everyone from batches of postgraduate MBA business students to shop-floor factory workers and their wives, from mid-level company executives to municipal sweepers and rubbish collectors. ‘This is the first time in 23 years of service I have been treated as a human being,’ said one sweeper.

Around the country, CENTREL also began convening ‘round table’ programmes for lawyers and judges, police officers and medical practitioners, each to work on applied ethics in their own professions. Last September, 30 officers took the first CENTREL programme for the Customs, Excise and Narcotics Department.

Last October, in something of a breakthrough for CENTREL, serving IAS officers—commissioners, collectors, departmental secretaries, election commissioners—came to Asia Plateau for a programme on ‘Ethics in Public Governance, drawing from inner strength’.

’This is the only training programme I’ve attended where people have not bunked sessions,’ said one bureaucrat. ‘I have attended dozens of courses and have left with piles of material which I never read,’ said another. ‘But I go from this one with real learning, a new awareness that I have taken people so much for granted.’

The programme was opened by Prabhat Kumar and another retired cabinet secretary. ‘It is your responsibility to make the public service honest, accountable and apolitical,’ said B G Deshmukh, who also served as Mumbai’s Police Commissioner. ‘Control and enforced compliance have to give way to motivation and guidance.’ And Kumar challenged them to use recently enacted national Right To Information (RTI) legislation to change the ‘culture of secrecy’ within government.

That legislation is among the strongest of any in the world, claims Arvind Kejriwal, who, in his thirties, quit his secure government job as an assistant collector of income taxes in Delhi to devote himself to assisting urban poor to get the government services due to them (see box). Kejriwal has signed a ‘memorandum of understanding’ with the Centre for Governance and the national Zee television network to promote awareness of the Right To Information.

Meanwhile Prabhat Kumar and core group members of the Centre for Governance are working in the area they know best: the public service. Meeting weekly in their rented office in New Delhi, they push forward one initiative after another. They started in November 2004 with a monthly lecture series on ‘transparency and accountability’, using their founding members as speakers.

Then, in January 2005, they collaborated with then Chief Election Commissioner, T S Krishna Murthy, to run a workshop on electoral reforms. In the last elections to the Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament), Indian-made electronic voting machines, costing about US$300 each, were used by 600 million voters, saving tons of paper and minimising manipulation. But in some state elections the ‘nexus between criminals and political leaders’ lies behind ‘a reign of terror’ which costs lives, said the Commissioner. Similarly, the ‘bureaucracy is becoming increasingly politicised at the middle and lower levels’. The Centre for Governance convened a national convention on electoral reform in January 2005.

Three months later, in association with the All India Management Association and the Institute for Integrated Learning in Management, they ran another ‘national convention’, this time on public governance. That October a third convention bit the bullet of judicial reform. ‘The most important thing is punctuality, promptitude, speed and awareness of the inconvenience caused to the litigant by thoughtless adjournments,’ said former Chief Justice Venkatachaliah. Since the convention a group has been working on identifying rules and laws that need to be amended, if justice is to be available to ordinary people at the least expense and in the shortest time.

Currently the Centre’s core group members, backed with promises of help from industry, are working on ambitious plans for ‘rural transformation’ through training village level panchyat leaders in sound governance. The focus is particularly on women.

‘One million women are now elected [to local councils] every five years,’ states Vasantha Bharucha, a senior government economist who is working with the Centre on this initiative. Equal representation of women in government is not only essential for upholding their human rights, she maintains, but also for poverty reduction. The Centre is conducting a national competition on ‘Women and governance at the grassroots’ to report on best practice and on the impact of women’s entry into formal structures of government.

’We are seeing plenty of action,’ confides one of the Centre’s members, ‘but how much it really impacts those in government is a question.’ Private meetings take place; connections are made at every opportunity. Yet those who have been in seats of power and responsibility are real enough to see that shifting systemic corruption will not happen easily. Prabhat Kumar admits that he is always asked in these meetings why he did not implement more changes when he was Cabinet Secretary. ‘I tried certain things,’ he says, ‘but I feel guilty that it wasn’t enough. In government service, there were so many compulsions. Now that I can speak my mind openly, I feel I should use whatever time is left for me to do something to improve governance in India.’

Dr Arun Kumar, Professor of Economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, estimates that 40 per cent of India’s GDP is generated in the black economy. The annual loss of revenue (approx US$100,000 million) could wipe out India’s fiscal deficit two and a half times over. Most of the black economy is in the hands of the top three per cent of the population. So the burgeoning middle and upper classes are forced to be corrupt to survive.

This is where the Centre for Governance and CENTREL seek to make a difference. ‘It would be presumptuous to think that we can bring about massive change,’ says one of the Centre’s core members, R D Mathur. ‘The Centre can only be a catalyst and a coordinator for the efforts of many—networking with all the forces working in this direction so that snowflakes, one day, become an avalanche.’

In the heat of Delhi’s political intrigues and power plays, that may seem an unlikely proposition. But Himalayan snow fields are also part of India’s landscape.

Additional reporting by To Long Seng and Tatiana Minbaeva

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