January 2011
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Ombudsman for Media

For the past few months, nearly every week a new scam has surfaced. When one reads the newspapers or looks at the television, the bulk of the space and time appears to be devoted to discussing a scam, dissecting its various dimensions, and arriving at a judgment against one or the other.  Indeed while the national investigating agencies appear to be functioning at snail’s pace or even hibernating for years on end, the vacuum has been filled by the media, which has taken on itself the mantle of criminal investigator. Amid all the smoke and the fog and the verbiage, it stands out clearly, unmistakably and beyond reasonable doubt, that the system of public governance in this country has become rotten to the core. While India has stagnated for the past few years at the top of the bottom-third of all countries in the transparency / honesty index, the fall has been steep in recent times. It is reasonable to surmise that in the forthcoming honours list, India will now be in the middle of the bottom-third of the world’s countries.

For those of us who have known the system over the decades, the steady fall in standards of probity in all aspects of governance has been well known. With marginal differences between the states, anyone who has work at a thana, or a block, or a tehsil or local vehicles office (the list is endless), knows the harsh reality. Rajiv Gandhi in the late-1980s had mentioned that out of every rupee spent on rural development, only 16 paise reached the intended beneficiary — the rest was siphoned off by parasites of various ilk.

Very recently Montek Ahluwalia, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission of India essentially reiterated the judgment of Rajiv Gandhi,  and reconfirmed the order of magnitude of the daily swindles that take place. That rural India has been corrupt since the Moghul and British days is well recognised. The significant difference relates to the corruption which has engulfed the higher elements of the administrative apparatus, reaching up to the very top; indeed it is more a top downwards movement. The progressive deterioration has been alarming in recent years. While we have seen many scams in the past, the frequency, magnitude, and the daring with which swindles are perpetrated is a matter of dismay. If we look at some recent scams — the CWG, Adarsh Society, 2-G Spectrum and now the banking loan scams have all a common feature — all are urban swindles perpetrated at the highest echelons of the system. Precisely because they are located in our metropolitan cities, these have drawn the attention of the media, to embark on investigation, and to expose the wrong-doing. Indeed the print and TV media deserve much credit for bringing these to national attention in the recent past.

That our politics is highly polluted is well recognised. Politics is now the largest business in India, dealing with unbelievable amounts of black money, without any mechanism for self-introspection or internal control or regulation. Indeed while our founding fathers produced a great Constitution 60 years ago, they blundered in one respect — failure to incorporate checks and balances against the political class. Jawaharlal Nehru, in his idealism, saw every future politician in his own mould — noble, imbued in the cause of public service and incorruptible. No wonder that the draft Lok Pal Bill has not been enacted for the past 30 years, and the draft bill has been continually diluted to make any future Lok Pal ineffective. There is no question that the politician has the dubious honour of being the fount of corruption in the country.

Sadly, the bureaucrats are not far behind. While 30 years ago most insiders at higher levels would know of one or two corrupt officers amongst them, the stage is fast approaching when it may become easier to identify the honest ones. While at higher levels most officers are not so deviant in a monetary sense, a large number have switched off or look the other way; an increasing number link their fortunes with that of politicians for mutual benefits, and participate in a silent but deadly tango to subvert public interest.

The business class clearly has a vested interest in identifying and cultivating corrupt officers for its own benefit ; it does this with panache, great efficiency and with unerring aim. The popular impression has been that the armed forces and the judiciary have generally stayed aloof, and maintained high probity standards. This probably is by and large correct. While insiders have long observed falling standards in our armed forces, the public image has remained unsullied. The Adarsh revelations have come as a rude shock to many. While many of us knew of the situation in the lower judiciary in the states, by and large the higher judiciary — the high court and the Supreme Court have been beyond suspicion — like Caesar’s wife. It is a little disconcerting to note the recent comments of the apex court in respect of a major high court in the country.

The recent disclosures of interaction between lobbyists and senior journalists have come as a shock to many in the country. Again insiders in the administration have always known of the power and influence of senior journalists, who can pull their weight on major issues through their contacts, and with quid-pro-quo techniques. But what the recent Radia tapes have brought out to the public domain is distressing indeed. It is obvious that journalists at all levels have to deal with all kinds of individuals, including shady characters, in their quest for information; but the nature of the interchanges revealed is disturbing. Clearly there should be no interference with the working of the media.

However, the Indian experience has been that no group of professionals has ever imposed self-discipline within their community, through their own internal mechanisms. The examples of doctors, lawyers, bureaucrats and other professionals indicate that there needs to be an independent outside agency to arbitrate, and to differentiate between right and wrong, and pronounce it in an authoritative and effective way. While there has been decline in the quality of all regulatory institutions, we still need an independent umpire in every field. It is true that the umpire frequently makes mistakes — some genuine, and some others motivated; the rules governing the umpire, including the selection process should ensure that fair judgments are given; honest mistakes can still occur. It is imperative that a mechanism has to be found to effectively refer deviant actions to a carefully structured outside agency.  How and in what manner this should be done is a difficult and delicate question. This ought not also to result in unduly influencing or muzzling the expression of opinion, even dissent. The need for an ombudsman in the media field is clearly evident.

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