We deserve better

Editorial

The scourge of corruption is neither new nor rare. It has been around for long, since tackling corruption can indeed be difficult, because no party involved stands to gain by disclosure and both investigations and court proceedings tend to drag out over years. Once corruption is allowed to become systemic it’s increasingly difficult to eliminate. Worse, should societal values get eroded, a culture of condoning corruption and a cynical view of our establishment develops in the population, making its elimination a very tall order indeed.

a public opinion survey, published by Transparency International ahead of International Anti-Corruption Day on 9 December, found that citizens in countries across the globe continue to see political parties as the institutions most compromised by corruption. In fact, public perception is that nothing really changes whenever political leaders and their parties are changed at the ballot. New faces come in, but the status quo does not change; policies and questionable, corrupt practices, once criticised by the same politicians while in opposition, become tolerated or justifiable when they win power. If the scourge cannot be pinned down to one political party, there is however a matter of degree as to the level to which one particular party/alliance or its leadership would be prepared to go down to collect the spoils and become prone to the control of vested interests, financiers and lobbies more concerned about their benefit than the public’s interest.

What we have seen in recent years, besides the long list of irregularities that the Director of Audit signals every year in his report of the examination of various expenses incurred by the government for the running of its different services undertaken in different sectors, is mind-boggling. Billions of rupees have gone into infrastructure, development or redevelopment projects, emergency public procurements in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic tarnished by questionable procedures, favouritism of various kinds to political protégés, etc.

While public procurement processes and protocols can be by-passed by corrupt players some feel that at the core of the corruption scourge is opaque party and electoral campaign financing, with parties relying on private funding from individuals and organisations and which allows financiers to wield significant influence over the political establishment with regard to policy making and the allocation of resources. Tied to this is the absence of transparency. In most cases where questionable dealings are suspected, there is one common factor: opacity. This is a practice that successive governments have been bequeathing to each other for a long enough time without redressing the situation through the introduction of a Right to Information Act.

There is also the failure of our investigating agencies to go to the bottom of cases where there is a strong suspicion of corrupt dealings. In fact, the record of ICAC leaves much to be desired in that regard. From its inexplicable turnaround in the MedPoint case, to the list of affairs where it is yet to be known where its inquiries stand, such as the Dufry scandal (2015); the Alvaro Sobrinho scandal (2018); the Sugar Insurance Fund Board’s highly excessive overpayment of land v/s valuation scandal (2018); the Choomka affair (2017); the Yerrigadoo/Bet 365 scandal (2018); the Glen Agliotti affair (2019), and finally the Serenity Gate/Film Rebate Scheme scandal (2019), the St Louis Redevelopment Project… all of these are blatant examples of questionable practices usually resulting from departures from pre-established norms.

We understand the necessity of caution with regard to information that may prejudice ongoing enquiries, but the absence of public briefings or regular communiqués about the progress of major enquiries are hardly the basis for public or media confidence in our institutions. ICAC may or should take a long cold look at how it could better handle communication about enquiries of obvious public interest rather than let matters drift along under such discretionary cloaks as to allow the worst fears and suspicions to spread in many quarters.

The trials and tribulations endured by the population during the pandemic, the numerous tragedies that have littered our collective memories or the hundreds of millions we pay for wage support, vaccines or ventilators, make the idea of fast and corrupt operators making merry with public funds with barely any consequence is a profoundly galling thought. The country deserves better.


* Published in print edition on 3 December 2021

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