On eve of International Anti-Corruption Day, veteran anti-corruption activist blames gov’t for failing to curb wrongdoing.
NEW DELHI (AA) – Corruption cannot be controlled in a country like India unless there is transparency and strong anti-corruption and grievance redressal mechanisms and institutions, the country’s top anti-corruption activist said.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency on the eve of International Anti-Corruption Day to be observed on Thursday, Anjali Bhardwaj, who has been working on issues of transparency and accountability, accused the government of not taking strong measures to curb corruption in the country.
India’s rank slipped six places among 180 countries last year in a corruption perception index by Transparency International released in January.
Bhardwaj, who was among the recipients of the new International Anticorruption Champions Award announced by the US administration earlier this year, said that in India, corruption was not limited to the highest echelons but permeated through the lowest level of administration.
“People are forced to pay bribes to access what is rightfully theirs,” she said adding that there were also “big-ticket corruption scams,” such as one related to the 2010 New Delhi Commonwealth Games, another known as the Vyapam scam concerning entrance exams, admission, and recruitment into educational institutes and public jobs, and allegations of corruption in a deal to purchase Rafale jets from France.
“But, we also see that even to be able to get a ration card or a passport, people are expected to pay a bribe. There is corruption at that level as well,” she said.
– Right to information
Blaming the government for failure in tackling corruption, Bhardwaj said: “One would have imagined that they (the government) would work towards strengthening the Right to Information (RTI) Act regime in the country because that empowers citizens to expose and fight corruption. But, the RTI framework has been weakened through amendments in 2019.”
In 2019, the Indian government amended the act, enabling the federal government to set the tenure, salaries, and service conditions for information commissioners at central as well as state levels.
“The amendment basically means that commissioners know that if they give any direction which the central government doesn’t like, then their terms of services could be adversely impacted. This has compromised the autonomy of information commissions,” she said.
“No government is interested in empowering citizens to question. So, there have always been attempts to weaken the law after it was passed in 2005. There has been a consistent attack on the law since 2014.”
According to Bhardwaj, the government has also been reluctant to recruit more commissioners, resulting in cases piling up.
She alleged that an atmosphere of fear has been created against “those who dare to question.” Scaring away people “is one way in which the RTI regime has been compromised,” she added.
– Set of institutions
“We needed a set of institutions to be able to fight corruption at different levels,” Bhardwaj said.
She underlined that legislation for an anti-corruption authority or ombudsman body, known as the Lokpal law, had been passed in 2014.
“But until 2019, the government did not appoint a single Lokpal, which meant the body was defunct for five years … Those selected were widely seen as government appointees and the independence of the Lokpal was compromised,” she explained, adding that the whole intention of the law had been to “have a strongly independent and empowered institution to investigate cases of corruption.”
She said: “The Whistleblowers Protection Act 2014 was passed by both houses of parliament, but never operationalized. It means people are threatened and murdered for exposing corruption.”
Attacks on activists advocating for the right to information have been growing in India for years, Bhardwaj said, adding that last month, an RTI activist and journalist who had exposed illegal clinics was murdered.