Sunday 8 March 2015

Corrupt officers block PM Modi’s transparency drive (Sunday Guardian)

MADHAV NALAPAT  New Delhi | 7th Mar 2015
Senior officials say that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called for a review by the Cabinet Secretariat of the indiscriminate way in which documents have been classified as secret. The intention behind the exercise is "to ensure greater transparency in the functioning of government offices, in order to promote disclosure and probity". Although as yet the Modi government has succeeded in bringing to justice only a small handful of corrupt officials during the UPA period, the rest of the tainted flock are nervous at a possible intensification of Prime Minister Modi's quest for transparency and accountability. They are therefore working to ensure that the opaque governance system that is a relic of the British colonial era, continues into the foreseeable future. In particular, they are working to ensure through appropriate notings and interventions that the 2011-13 efforts by the Manmohan Singh government to water down the impact of the Right to Information Act get revived rather than rolled back.
Acting on the overall directions of the Prime Minister, units of the Delhi police have uncovered several "corporate espionage rings" operating within key economic and other ministries. Senior officials in sync with PM Modi's desire for clean and transparent government say that relevant agencies have since 2011 had knowledge of these networks, but that the corporate spies were allowed to continue unimpeded "because of protection from the highest political quarters". Interestingly, some of these espionage networks ensured the flow (to selected media channels) of information stolen from ministry files, so as to generate negative (albeit factual) stories about rival groups and hostile individuals, including senior officials as well as ministers. Some of the rings "functioned also as the private detective agencies of friendly officials and politicians, securing for them dirt on their opponents, which could be leaked to friendly journalists or used for purposes of blackmail".
For the media, accuracy and public interest trump the motivation of sources in revealing information, hence their case for publishing material stolen from government files by corporate espionage networks. Interestingly, police and other agencies have yet to question more than a third of the individuals known (from preliminary investigations) to have guided such spy rings, or who regularly accessed information gathered by them. However, an official said that these individuals have not been excused, but will be questioned later, after the huge volume of information secured during the raids gets processed by the police. Interestingly, an official privy to the documents said that "more than three-fourths of them should not have been classified as secret". According to him, such documents ought to have been placed on the websites of the concerned ministries, and that to do so would have been in the public interest.
"Keeping information secret, which ought to have been in the public domain, ensures that bribes get paid to reveal such data, and also serves to protect corrupt officials", a senior official warned, adding that "more than 90% of classified information is such as to serve the public interest better by disclosure rather than by secrecy". A senior official said that specific measures to increase transparency have been suggested, which include:
(a) the placing of draft bills intended for introduction in Parliament on ministry websites, in order to generate the views of civil society on such prospective legislation;
(b) televising or live streaming of the discussions held by Parliamentary committees on important issues and the placing of minutes of proceedings in the public domain;
(c) placing on relevant official websites all decisions of the Union Cabinet as well as the notes relied upon in the taking of such decisions;
(d) making public the assets of officials, and making them fill out a declaration of assets each year for themselves and their family members, with penalties for non-disclosure. In particular, several officials claim that their offspring win scholarships to expensive international institutions of higher learning. Full details of how costs of stay and study abroad of dependents of decision-makers are being met would assist in accountability, officials unhappy at the non-disclosure of such information say;
(e) making public via ministry websites the file movements both within each ministry as well as between ministries, so as to keep a check on inefficiency or possible collateral motives;
(f) placing information given in public tenders on relevant websites, after technical and financial bids have been opened, so as to keep a check on possible scams based on "fixing" of criteria;
(g) strengthening the ambit of the Right to Information Act and set mandatory punishments for ignoring timelines for the handing over of information, as well as ensure that only those committed to transparency would be considered for the posts of Information Commissioners.
Senior officials say that except for a coterie of corrupt officials and their accessories, others in the government would welcome greater transparency. Owing to the widespread prevalence of graft in India, disclosure of information has much less of a downside than a continuation of the British colonial era fetish of official secrecy, one of the many features of colonial rule embraced in totality by Jawaharlal Nehru and his successors. These officials say that they are hopeful that Prime Minister Modi will succeed in his mission of ensuring transparent government. They would also like the Cabinet Secretariat to initiate workshops and courses on "open government" for officials at all levels, so as to rid them of the cult of secrecy and a mistrust in the good sense of the general public, both of which are holdovers from the British colonial era, but which still remain embedded within the governance system in India. "Prime Minister Modi can rely on the 'honest majority' of officials to ensure that he succeeds in his efforts at bringing the governance system in India on par with those in other major democracies, rather than resemble those of authoritarian states," according to a senior official.

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