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Chhavi Rajawat
Sarpanch, Soda village, Rajasthan
Poonam Barua
Founder Chairman, Forum for Women in Leadership
Bijoy Patro
Head of Programmes and Editor, Special Projects, OneWorld Foundation India
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Activist, Narmada Bachao Andolan
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Think Pieces

The GKC Think Pieces section is an interactive platform that brings together experts and authorities on various subjects to provoke thinking as well as discussion with personal opinion and analysis on contemporary issues related to governance.

06 March 2013

Begging a definition

Bijoy Patro

For various reasons one needn’t go into, the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill 2011 could become law sooner rather than later. The Lok Sabha has passed the Bill.

It promises to tackle corruption like no other legal instrument has before.

One clarification arises, however. Somewhere in the midst of all the agitation against corruption, one has missed any serious debate on what forms corruption. Are we assuming that everyone is on the same page on what is corruption? The prevention of corruption act, for example defines election, public duty and a public servant. Then there are the Prevention of Money Laundering Act of 2002 and the Benami Transactions (Prohibition Act) that have their singular prism for corruption. Does that mean that those not transacting benami deals or laundering money outside government employment cannot be corrupt? Besides this, corruption in business and corporations, big or small, seems to be too bad to be true. And has anyone not heard of crony capitalism?

All these beg a definition for corruption that covers all aspects of public life, and even private as long as it does not enter the sphere of privacy or daddy-bribing-baby-to-have-time-with-mommy. For the latter, some might well ask why not, because it could actually be tantamount to sowing the seeds for corruption – one begs to differ though. There are other analogies – how does one accuse cricketers fixing matches of corruption, since the closest they might come to is to cheat and not give their fans their monies’ worth. 

In all the hue and cry around corruption, we do not seem to have moved any further than the formative years of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. There, if one might say, lies the shame we need to correct because India has moved a long way since then.

So, how does one define corruption? Is it truly so complex to defy comprehension? Kautilya’s Arthashastra has reference to it and the UN’s Convention against corruption reads: ‘Corruption is an insidious plague that has a wide range of corrosive effects on societies. It undermines democracy and the rule of law, leads to violations of human rights, distorts markets, erodes the quality of life and allows organised crime, terrorism and other threats to human security to flourish’.

Corruption remains an elephantine issue – difficult to describe, yet too obvious not to be recognised.

The closest one gets is a definition by some world bodies that define corruption as an abuse of power. “The abuse of entrusted power for private gain,” as Transparency International says covers much ground. And if there is ground left uncovered to satiate popular demand, it defines political corruption as “a manipulation of policies, institutions and rules of procedure in the allocation of resources and financing by political decision makers, who abuse their position to sustain their power, status and wealth.”

Transparency’s definition of corruption echoes in the UNDP’s as well, considered as it is, the misuse or abuse of public office for private gain that comes in different forms and an array of illicit behaviour: bribery, extortion, fraud, nepotism, graft, speed money, pilferage, theft, embezzlement, falsification of records, kickbacks, influence peddling, and campaign contributions (Robert Klitgaard, an academic known for his writings on corruption).

None of the various definitions for corruption might suit our needs. But there definitely is a need to define it and come up with a definition that is up to speed with the India of the day. 

There appears to be a fear in defining corruption. India has been a late one to ratify the UN convention on corruption and one would wonder aloud why, because asset recovery is stated explicitly as a fundamental principle of the convention. Besides, the convention binds signatory countries to render mutual legal assistance to prosecute offenders as well in tracing, freezing, and confiscating the proceeds of corruption.

Let us open the doors for a debate on this vital subject to inform the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill further. That would be the best way to do it when the anti-corruption stir in our cities peaked over a year ago.

It is not too late yet.

( Journalist turned humanitarian worker turned activist turned journalist, Bijoy Patro is Head of Programmes and Editor, Special Projects, with OneWorld Foundation. He has worked with a number of Indian and international media groups and organizations, mainly covering issues on South Asia. )