Bihar sets an example

Out-of-the-box ideas are the need of the hour. Bihar has begun to show the nation the way. After pioneering the bicycle-for-every-girl student scheme, now being replicated in other states, the state has set an example in the fight against corruption. On September 8, about 100 students belonging to one of the poorest communities and studying in a school without proper infrastructure were transported to a palatial three-storeyed building in the state capital for their classes.

The building with marble floors, fancy lights and ultra-modern bathroom fittings will hereafter serve as their school. In fact, the children were astonished when they first entered their new classrooms. The house, valued at $1.2 million, belonged to one S S Verma, an officer belonging to the Indian Administrative Service, known more by its acronym IAS, whose members run the administration at the Centre and in the states.

The Bihar Government has instituted a case of corruption against Verma, who is alleged to have amassed properties disproportionate to his known sources of income. Many officials in the country face such charges but what makes Verma’s case unique is a new piece of legislation Bihar has passed. Under the Bihar Special Courts Act, 2009, the government can take over any property if it has been obtained through corruption.

If, by any chance, the owner is able to disprove the charge against him, the building will be duly returned to him with adequate compensation. In most cases, it would be very difficult for a government employee, who gets a maximum salary of less than $2000, to account for such huge investments. Verma thus becomes the first official to become a “victim” of the new law. Students in Bihar can expect more such palatial building to become schools, if action initiated against a dozen or so government officials reaches its logical conclusion.

Images of school children enjoying the lavishness of their new “school” are bound to haunt all those who have built such edifices on the foundation of bribes. Though on the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) of Transparency International, India is at the 87th position, few have been punished for indulging in corrupt practices. Often, they are able to fight the cases against them by hiring the best lawyers with the help of their ill-gotten wealth.

In the past suggestions had been made that any property acquired through corrupt means should be taken over by the government. Since the right to property is a fundamental right, the governments were hamstrung in taking such action. Besides, the IAS officials know how to protect their turf better than anyone else. Thankfully, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was bold to strike at the likes of Verma by enacting the new law.

A few days back, the government released the assets declared by most of the Central ministers. Accordingly, Defence Minister A K Antony is the poorest of the lot and Urban Development Minister Kamal Nath the richest. All those contesting elections to Parliament and state legislatures also have to make such declarations.

A similar system is in vogue in the case of senior public sector employees, though their declarations are kept secret. It should be possible for the government to make it compulsory for every employee to declare his assets at the time of joining the service and update the declaration every year. If at any time, he is unable to account for any additional property, it should vest with the government.

The Central government has launched an ambitious unique identification scheme, under which every citizen will have a number and an identity card, which will store all details about the person, including his thumb impressions and retina images. The same database can be used to store details about property also.

Technology has helped to eliminate corruption in areas like reservation of tickets in trains and aircraft. Out-of-the-box ideas like the one Bihar is experimenting with are the need of the hour. Instead, BJP leader and former union home minister L K Advani has threatened to go on a rath yatra (journey on a chariot) to campaign against corruption.

Twenty years ago, he used such a journey from Somnath to Ayodhya to capture the imagination of the people. But the second time he went on a similar yatra, it failed to make any impact. This time the yatra may help him to re-establish his claim to the post of prime minister if the BJP is voted to power, but it will not bring down corruption even by a notch. For that, we need to make corruption a lot more risky than is the case now.

Source: Oman Tribune

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