Monday, April 25, 2011

Is Lokpal Bill enough to tackle corruption in India?

Over the past couple of weeks, India as a nation has witnessed the powers of one determined Gandhian. Joining with him in his quest for stronger Lokpal bill, were thousands of Indians which included both netizens and citizens whom the aristocratic political class term as "Aam admi". Government or rather PM Manmohan Singh did a good job in defusing the entire agitation by giving in to the demands as any further delay would have caused a revolution leading to his government's downfall. At the heart of the issue is the Lokpal Bill aimed to fight corruption in India which was first conceived in 1969 but still waiting to be passed in the parliament.

Though I completely respect Anna Hazare's effort to bring this issue to the fore, I am more inclined to agree with Kapil Sibal's view that the bill's scope in tackling corruption is limited. The main reason is that at the end of the day, it is only a bill. And a bill like many others can only go so far in addressing the tackling corruption. Moreover, loopholes always exist in any law and most scamsters are intelligent enough to exploit these or at least drag the case till they are old and frail when it would eventually not matter. I believe a similar story would be play out with the Lokpal Bill. Of course, it can be argued this is an important step forward. No doubt on that. The point I am trying to make is corruption exists mainly due to the systemic inefficiencies and creating laws or acts can only deter corruption as much.

These systemic inefficiencies create an incentive to be corrupt. Or in other words it rewards the corrupt and punishes the honest. Thus to remove corruption, these systemic inefficiencies have to be removed which can only be achieved through better governance and not by creating more laws. One of the most proven weapons in improving governance is the use of technology. The other two weapons would be the people in the government and Aam Admi.

Yes I am in technology and technology rocks when you want transparency and accountability. System takes care of that. Many state governments have invested in technology at various fronts to improve the governance. Even the central government, has tried to implement wherever, it sees limited opposition. Examples which I am aware of are e-filings of tax return, the generation of PAN card and the most ambitious project taken up so far is UID (Unique Identification System). The most important aspect of technology is that it reduces human intervention. For example for PAN card, anyone with an internet connection can go and lookup the site for information on how to fill the form and then fill, print and post it to the concerned department. The entire process can take at most 3-4 hours which can be done from the comfort of your home. (Discounting the trip to the post office :) ). Moreover, you can track the application status online and rectify the form if needed. This has removed the need of bribing 
  • someone to learn how to fill the form
  • to track the status
  • to move the application if it gets stuck anywhere.
The second example where technology can be greatly useful is ensuring traffic rules compliance. Any reason why traffic policemen encourage bribes? Some of them are given below:
  • He does not have to create a receipt for the offense.
  • He does not have to listen to the offender's defense stories and his constraints which caused him to break the rule.
  • A traffic chaos may happen during the time he was creating a receipt and thus have to work harder.
So how can technology reduce corruption?  Jumping of signals, riding in the wrong lane or over-speeding can all be captured through a camera which captures the registration number and send the ticket to the offender's home. At the same time, an entry can be made against the driver's license card, to ensure tracking of the number of offense and also auto-debit the fine amount from the offender's bank or credit card account. Believe this is already implemented in some countries. Additionally, if a policeman catches an offender, he can simply swipe the driver's license card and the system will do the rest for him. Although this looks like a pipe-dream, they are inherently doable. Believe some developed countries have this system already in place.

People in the Government
Consider a clichéd government employee's job profile. He is assigned a task which he has to do for years. Only if the person above him retires or dies, does he have any chance of growth. Naturally boredom sets in and the absence of future growth makes him neglect his current duties. The only incentive for him to work is the bribes from people who want to get things done a bit quicker as there is no enforceable SLA for the government employee to work. The situation can only be improved if there is change in this culture. 
The peer pressure tactic is the best option to effect a culture change. A strong leader who can influence 10 % of his direct reports can bring about this change. By making this 10 % influence another 10 % and so on, can radically change the DNA of the government office. The change will be gradual but will be effective. Ricardo Semler's effort at Semco SA can be taken as an example for this. 
Thus if as a team, they decide to get things done within the SLA and without taking bribe, even the most lazy person would have to work. In a way it can be be looked at as an HR issue. In the end, the government needs leaders who can bring about the change in the minds of the people within departments. 

Aam Admi
How can a "Aam Admi" say no to corruption? He is under pressure virtually from everywhere. Pollution, oppressive heat, potholed laden roads, and public commute make the daily trudging to the office a bigger ordeal than it already is. Apart from this he has to work under abusive bosses, handle intrusive neighbors and demanding relatives. In all this, if a government process takes too long, he cannot afford to keep his life aside till the government process is completed. He has to complete that as well in the melee that his life is in.  Yet not taking the easier path may not make it easier to get it done. This happened to my friend who needed to get a No Objection Certificate (NoC) to transfer his bike from Mumbai to Bangalore. He chose the easier route. He called up an agent who asked him Rs. 1500 to get everything done in 3 days. Fortunately the agent failed to turn up when my friend went to get the NoC done. Out of desperation he tried to get it done the right way. Eventually he got it done within 2 days itself and the cost - Rs. 200.

Probably our demand to get it done easier is far more than the demand to get it done by the correct process. Due to this sometimes the time saved by the shortcut method may be actually time lost in the overall equation. A bit of patience and a bit of effort in understanding the process may just well be the solution to reduce the corruption. Additionally an emphatic NO can also do the trick to a large extent.

Presented some of my thoughts based on the drama that has been unfolding around LokPal for past few weeks now. Do post your valuable feedback and solutions in the comments section.

PS: Just thought of focusing on the bigger picture rather than just the Lokpal Bill. Also on a personal front too have bribed my way out quite a few times. Thats a change that I need to bring in within myself :P