How corrupt are we? A little less this year than last, according to the latest corruption perception index released by Transparency International. India's rank has been improving since 2004, and currently we are better placed than all our neighbours except Bhutan. The TI index is based on perceptions of the business community regarding corruption in a country. Since 2004, India's rating has been improving but only gradually. But why are we only the 72nd least corrupt country in the world? Our integrity score on a scale of 10 is a low 3.5 compared to 9.4 for Denmark, Finland and New Zealand, the least corrupt nations in the world. It is not a coincidence that the least corrupt countries have high degrees of economic freedom.
One reason why India lags behind these countries is, in fact, the high degree of state interference in business. Reforms have been gradual and continue to be resisted by politicians. That has to change and change fast.
Institutional reforms and competition in sectors that were until recently the monopoly of the government have doubtless reduced corruption. Competition from private players has limited the opportunities for Officers to extract bribes. The Right to Information Act has the potential to radically alter the way bureaucracy functions. But, there is resistance to it from all quarters of the government. Various agencies have sought exemption from the RTI Act under some pretext or the other, whereas the rest want to subvert its provisions. The Representation of the People Act and a vigilant media have helped to curtail political corruption to an extent. Similarly, bodies like SEBI have instituted corporate governance practices to check malpractices in the stock market. An Act to protect whistle-blowers has been talked about but is far from becoming law. It is a must if we are to take forward the fight against corruption.
However, a big problem is the ponderous, lethargic and somewhat opaque judiciary. It has stayed away from the general tide towards transparency and accountability. The judiciary has resisted efforts by respected justices and others to make the functioning of courts more transparent. The Nachiappan committee set up by Parliament has suggested an independent body with representation from the legislature, the executive and the bar to have a say in appointments to courts and matters related to judicial misconduct. This is a welcome suggestion.
The huge backlog of cases — in the Supreme Court, high courts and district and subordinate courts — has slowed down the judicial process. This prompts people to avoid legitimate means of redress and abets corruption. It erodes the credibility of the institution. Judges should facilitate steps to rectify the situation and ensure that the judiciary is not only accountable but also seen to be above suspicion. Legal reforms that will cleanse the judiciary of black sheep are urgently needed if we are to seriously fight corruption.