Darkness visible

At the risk of sounding cynical, corruption in India surprises no one. Be that as it may, a two-part report in this paper, uncovering the fact that funds collected in 1999-2000 by Red Cross societies in Punjab never reached the victims, has made us sit up. The funds were used, instead, for personal expenses by government bureaucrats. The report also added that grants received from central ministries were also diverted. Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal has now ordered a probe. Everything, alas, looks all too familiar.

These are not isolated cases. Recently, there were reports of large-scale siphoning of funds from the UPA’s showpiece National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) in Orissa. A survey conducted by a Delhi-based NGO uncovered that of the Rs 733 crore spent under NREGS in six of the poorest of poor districts in the state, more than Rs 500 crore went unaccounted for — probably misappropriated by officials. In October, people in West Bengal’s Bankura and Birbhum districts attacked ration dealers because food stocks were being diverted to feed the open market. Though the dealers came under scrutiny, there is no doubt that someone ‘upstream’ had given the go-ahead to this diversionary tactic in exchange for benefits. And on a broader scale, there have been cases of foreign donor agencies shying away from putting their money in the development sector fearing similar siphoning of funds. Corruption seems more de rigeur than the exception in this country. So what is to be done?

Two things perpetuate such frauds. One, most of us — the urban, educated class included — are not even aware of our rights, and therefore are in no position to demand them when denied. In most cases, we make a contribution to the relief funds and forget all about it. If this is the case in urban India, then rural India, with its high illiteracy rates, doesn’t stand much of a chance in exercising its rights. The other side of the story is the hoarding of information by the government itself. Even in today’s Information Age, bureaucrats find out ways to keep the public away from information. While the Right to Information (RTI) has made some difference, it has hardly been the be all and end all. RTI makes sense as a legal measure to be used as the proverbial last resort. Easy and timely access to information is the key to making corruption a difficult pastime. From that difficulty will stem its extinction.