The country is passing through stressful times of unprecedented intensity that could have unexpected ramifications. The economic scene was dismal even before the spread of the pandemic, with a falling GDP and rising unemployment. We have now realised that an indefinite lockdown neither retards the spread of the virus nor guarantees social well-being. In spite of the lockdown, India is now third on the list of nations with most Covid infections. The real human dimensions of the pandemic and lockdown are yet to be fully gauged.
With a view to fast-tracking economic recovery, several states have gone ahead with amendments to labour laws to suit the convenience of the investor. Inconvenient (but justified) regulations are being diluted to make matters easier for the entrepreneur. High-decibel voices are already demanding more such reforms. Economic growth is imperative, but the national mood that justifies throwing all caution to the wind and pursuing growth at any cost will have far more dangerous consequences than slower growth.
Embedded as it is in the climate of self-reliance and an undeclared trade war with China, trends of accelerated economic development and investment promotion are clearly foreboding. Ensuring ease of doing business should not sound the death knell for the necessary checks and balances in a system.
This misplaced enthusiasm, among other collateral damages, has the potential to create a dangerous tolerance towards corruption, one of the most cancerous maladies of our polity and society. Strangely, corruption, though ubiquitous across the country, is the least discussed malady in political and administrative circles. But that complacency will prove to be quite costly as the nation embarks on the path of a new self-reliant economic miracle.
The historic situation impels the civil society to up their antenna and fight this pathogen that is more virulent than the novel coronavirus. Firstly, we have to overcome the narrow legal definition of corruption. By defining corruption in technically guarded terminology, a large chunk of real and major corruption gets excluded. Broadly, corruption exists in three categories. The first is bureaucratic corruption, which is what vigilance mechanisms and anti-corruption agencies normally target. More than 90% of cases being investigated belong to this category, where individual functionaries have violated rules or misused authority to amass wealth or gain other coveted favours.
The impact or deterrent value of this category of cases in tackling corruption is minimal. The second category is policy corruption. It is not the same as political corruption, though both share an unholy nexus. This is the playground of powerful corporate and business interests. In the pretext of economic growth, they influence the government to change policies, relax controls and do away with regulation. Extraordinary times like this offer an effective context (or pretext) to unscrew the nuts and bolts of supervision and the rigour of rules.
All the inexplicable haste with which labour laws have been mutilated and environment regulations diluted are nothing but typical cases of policy corruption. That also explains the abrupt manner in which these far-reaching changes were introduced. Nothing is discussed in state Assemblies or Parliament. Nor is it considered important enough to take the legislature into confidence. This kind of executive overreach is a clear symptom of policy corruption. By taking the ordinance route, the executive presents a fait accompli to the legislature. Bureaucratic corruption and political corruption thrive in such an atmosphere that emits unmistakable signals of entrenched policy corruption.
These two kinds of corruption are not possible without the more serious corruption that provides the comforting medium for the virus (of corruption) to merrily multiply. And that is moral corruption. It has permeated our society and polity at all levels. Barring individual exemptions, moral depravity is the norm. In fact, moral corruption is the mother of all corruptions and therefore, our silence about it is lethal. Though moral corruption has countless manifestations, the unmistakable sign is the chasm between image and intent; the gap between rhetoric and response. Once civil society is aware of this gap, words will ring hollow.
Motives contrary to pronouncements will be read even in carefully (or cleverly) worded messages. Any amount of rhetoric, histrionics or genuflection cannot win moral legitimacy unless it is backed by genuine intent. At every level, this lack of moral legitimacy impedes the collective but suppressed wish of a people to redeem the society, polity and administration from the netherworld of corruption. Gandhiji was never tired of highlighting the value of high standards of moral probity in public life. For him, the leader should have no possession of his own. Political life was akin to sanyas for the Mahatma. Though that will be too unreal an ideal in our times, the nation cannot regain its soul unless we value moral integrity as pivotal.
If we compromise on these threatening manifestations of corruption, the post-Covid India, in its eagerness to scale new heights of economic development, will resemble a battleground: scarred by economic exploitation, wounded by ravenous ecological plunder and infested with moral depravity. On the other hand, this crisis could also be converted into a historic moment for moral cleansing, corruption-free administration and transparent policymaking. Such an India, free of the virus of corruption, will be far more sustainable and truly powerful, than a steroid-driven nation pursuing growth at any cost.
Ex-Kerala Chief Secretary, ex-VC, Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam Varsity