When one is a tourist in Europe, one does not usually see a ‘ticket inspector’, verifying each passenger whether he has purchased a ticket or not, in the train or bus as the case may be. For example, in Geneva, where each bus trip used to cost SFr 1, one could buy the ticket individually at the bus stop or buy a ‘book’ for 20 or so for convenience; have it ‘punched’ at the machine at the bus stop. There is usually none to verify each passenger. But suddenly, once in a long while, three or four inspectors would enter from nowhere, cover all doors, and do a rapid verification; those who do not have a valid ticket will have to pay SFr 150 on the spot. No excuse is accepted—if you do not pay, you will be taken in custody, and stay there till someone pays on your behalf. The chances of checking on each trip is 1 in 30; the penalty if caught is 1 in 150; no excuse whatsoever is accepted; only a cretin will want to take a chance. This was the principle enunciated by President Ronald Reagan of the US during the 1980s: I will trust you, but verify you; if you fail the test, I will throw the book at you.
In the implementation of every law in India, the above principle is rarely put to use. Somehow, the psyche appears to be that the punishment ought to be ‘commensurate’ with the offence. There is no element of deterrence in the process. This is the main reason for a thriving inspector raj. The attempt is to verify every single transaction and punish marginally the offender. With the cutting-edge level corruption endemic in the process, along with extremely poor investigation procedures, and finally flaccid prosecution, almost certainly the offender will get away. On the one hand, a huge army of ‘inspectors’ is deployed, and the offenders provide them their real livelihood. Thus the motorist gets away with a backhanded `200; the builder who had violated the approved plan ‘handles’ the matter smoothly; the factory owner who pollutes the atmosphere gets away by ‘dealing’ with the official of the pollution control board—this scenario can be multiplied in 10,000 different fields. The net result is rampant corruption, damage to public interest, scant respect for the law, and deteriorating public space.
In insurance law, which is applicable in India, the concept of ‘utmost good faith’ is used, which obliges the proposer to disclose everything about himself truthfully, indeed all that is relevant to taking the decision to grant or refuse his ‘policy’. He would certify that the ‘the facts stated are true and no information that would be relevant has been concealed or suppressed’. If at any time, this statement is found to be false, he is liable to pay a very heavy penalty—indeed could have his policy cancelled without recompense. The responsibility is not with the insurance company—the onus is on the proposer to tell the truth. This principle could be inducted to cover many areas of field governance and implementation. Thus an IT assessee concealing income could be punished 100 times the amount; a polluter who violates the conditions of approval could have his factory summarily closed down, and so on. This random check basis, coupled with potential for very high punishment, would have a strong deterrent effect—inspector raj instead of being greasy and effete as it is today could be converted to limited, but high quality inspection, using technology, followed by severe punishment to offenders.
Very recently, a ferry commander aged 68, whose boat capsized in Korea two years ago killing many passengers, was given a 36-year jail sentence—not for murder, but for ‘negligence’. An instance of deterrence in punishment—every bus/taxi/train driver, boat captain, airline pilot, and so many others would remember this—‘negligence’ can lead to 36 years in jail; this one step is equal to 10,000 inspectors.
We saw the horrific tragedy in Bilaspur, where over 20 women died post tubectomy operations. The calls have been coming thick and fast for someone or the other to ‘resign’. Is that the solution? The reality is every public contact system is rotten to the core—spurious drugs abound, there is short-weighment in every shop, every food item is adulterated, some with dangerous additives. Wherever you touch, there is sleaze, untruth. Surely it is absurd to argue that the departmental inspectors do not know what is happening in each single case. In the Chhattisgarh matter, rusted instruments, spurious/poisonous drugs, dirty infected environment have all played a part in the tragedy. What is needed is that the chief minister to hold a credible high level inquiry wrapped up within one month, identify 10 or 15 wrong-doers; send them to 15 years jail terms (possibly for abetment to murder or any other legalese); tell the world that he is serious in addressing the rot.
We need to rethink implementation of all our laws. We need to induct the principle of ‘utmost good faith’— ‘I will trust you, but I will throw the book at you if you fail on verification’.
Subramanian is a former Cabinet Secretary