‘Corruption has been institutionalised in J&K’
A couple of years ago, Transparency International, a Berlin-based international corruption watchdog and a non-profit, non-governmental organisation committed to curbing corruption in various countries, rated violence-hit Jammu and Kashmir as the second most corrupt state in India after Bihar. The state government wanted to erase this stigma.
In a society where corruption is deep-rooted, even to think of tackling this menace is akin to declaring a war on terror. But determined to declare a war on corruption in J&K and root out the menace, the Jammu and Kashmir government’s priority area now is to empower the State Vigilance Organisation. And to head the Jammu and Kashmir State Vigilance Organisation (SVO), it picked up one of its senior-most and one of the most honest police officers.
Dr Ashok Bhan took over as the new Commissioner of Vigilance two years ago. Since then, the Vigilance Organisation has become very strong.
A doctorate in Botany, Dr Bhan joined the Indian Police Service in 1976 and has held important assignments, including heading the state Intelligence department as the Additional Director General, CID, Inspector General of Police, Kashmir zone, Director Sher-e-Kashmir Police Academy, besides an assignment with the Intelligence Bureau (IB) for about five years.
A recipient of the DGP’s Commendation Medal, President’s Police Medal for Meritorious Services, President’s Police Medal for Distinguished Services, Police Medal for Gallantry, Wound Medal, Sher-e-Kashmir Police Medal for Gallantry and Sher-e-Kashmir Police Medal for Meritorious Services, Dr Bhan’s most recent decoration has been the Chief Minister’s Medal for Honesty.
Dr Bhan spoke to KAVITA SURI in a freewheeling interview discussing corruption, rooting out the meance, challenges and the role of society in dealing with it.
How successful have you been so far in eradicating corruption from India’s second most corrupt state?
We have tried to be pro-active in fighting corruption in Jammu and Kashmir because enforcement of the law alone cannot eradicate corruption. Enforcement is essentially individual-centric action. When corruption becomes institutionalised, individual-centric approach cannot take us very far.
We need systematic changes. You have to create barriers in the system in corruption-prone areas. You have to have a very effective monitoring system, a system of inspections, of rewards and punishments and above all, you got to have transparency in governance. It is society which has to stand up and make a decision. Why should you visit the office to collect forms?
Why can’t the concerned department upload the forms and you get it in your home?
While we have tried to do enforcement, we have tried to gather public opinion in favour of other parts and the government has supported our approach that fighting corruption is a management issue and not mere enforcement.
Can we relate corruption in the state to the conflict situations prevailing for the past 18 years?
There is corruption in J&K as it is prevalent in other states also. But when there is violence and the government cannot function normally, when the democratic process gets hampered, it adds to corruption. The government system of monitoring does not exist; there is a lot of pressure on public servants. So it does add to the levels of corruption but let’s not attribute corruption to violence alone.
You said corruption has been institutionalised in Jammu and Kashmir. Is it difficult to break institutionalised corruption?
It is always difficult to break the nexus where public servants are willing to pay for “lucrative” positions and thereafter go on the rampage. This collusive corruption is difficult to detect but it is the most damaging. This can be dealt with only when society stands up against such people and they can no longer “demand” important positions.
There have been allegations that the pace of development has been retarded due to vigilance operations, work has slowed down due to vigilance raids or even threat of raids. How true are the reports?
Let me make it clear that vigilance is not an audit department. We come into the picture when prima facie there is a complaint of criminal misconduct. We would like to refrain from interfering in administrative matters even if they amount to lapses and sometimes negligence. Our officers are under instructions not to harass or initiate inquiries against any officer who enjoys good reputation. There are complaints with mala fide intentions. The Vigilance Organisation receives three to four thousand complaints every year. Our experience is that most of the complaints are based on personal rivalry, family feuds, professional jealousy, etc. It is very rare to find a complaint received by post, most of which are anonymous or pseudonymous, having led to registration of a case which eventually came up before a court of law.
We have set up a very strong screening system to see that people do not use us to harass their rivals within the departments or otherwise. With these safeguards, there is absolutely no question of our pro-active stance being responsible for the allegation that the pace of development has slowed down due to vigilance operations.
Recently, a senior minister in the state government alleged that the SVO was targeting more Kashmiri officers than those from Jammu. Do you think even corruption is being communalised?
No, I don’t think anybody has communalised corruption. People are within their rights to give their perception as far as the SVO is concerned. We go strictly by the law. When we receive a case which requires action under the Prevention of Corruption Act, we go by the merits of the case, rather than the religion or the region to which the complainant or the accused belongs to. Once thing I must mention here is the people in Kashmir valley have demonstrated more awareness and resolve to eradicate and expose corruption, particularly at the grassroots level. The number of cases registered by the vigilance from 1990 to 1996 were more from the Jammu region and later when the elected government took over in 1996, people came forward in Kashmir valley Therefore, out of the trapped cases, about 75 per cent are registered in Kashmir, while only 25 per cent occur in Jammu. As far as other cases of disproportionate assets or misappropriation of funds are concerned, the number of cases is almost equally distributed between the two provinces. This trend had continued since the popular government returned in 1996.
But don’t your officers and other staff feel demoralised by such statements?
I would say that the allegations are a result of propaganda by some corrupt influential public servants who have been booked in the recent past. It is not the feeling of Kashmiris or the media or the government. Therefore, one must continue to work according to the law.
Why is the SVO targeting lower and middle-rung officers and the higher-ups are getting away when corruption flows from top to bottom?
Staircase of corruption can be cleaned from top downwards. Most of the corruption at the top is collusive in nature is not easy to detect. Let nobody be under the mistaken notion that the SVO is shielding public servants or public men at the top. We cannot go by rumours. The SVO is not reluctant to go after politicians or senior bureaucrats. But we should have something concrete before moving against these people. We can’t go and book everybody on hearsay. Hard evidence is required and wherever it becomes available, we are legally bound to take cognizance. Let me also say that during the past 3-4 years, action has been taken against very senior public servants, including 5-6 IAS officers, five officers of the Indian Forest Service, six chief engineers and six head of departments of the level of directors and a superintendent of police. These are by no means small fish. In fact, in one case, a chief engineer was caught red handed taking a bribe of Rs 30,000.
What has been your success rate in terms of filing chargesheets, disposal of cases and conviction rate, etc.?
The high point of our enforcement directorate include a very elaborate system of screening of the complaints, improving the percentage of the proved cases during investigation to 90 per cent , completely investigating in the time frame and follow up of the cases in the court. Quality investigation in a specific time frame was one of our objectives last year. The proportion of proved cases has increased to over 95 per cent in 2005 and 2006 as against around 65 per cent in 2003 and 2004 and an average of 35 percent during 1997-2002. Citizens have started to make use of the RTI Act. The SVO, which was the first to issue its Citizen’s Charter and nominate a nodal officer, has provided information to 7 applicants, denied to 3 and advised in 1 case to take report from the originating department last year.
(The interviewer is Special Representative of The Statesman based in Jammu)