Recently, I had a discussion with some young students in Patna who were preparing for the civil service examinations. This seems an interesting time for the students. They tend to be optimistic and idealistic in equal measures as they are on the verge of, conditional on passing the examination, changing the system for the better for their countrymen.
The question of the Lokpal bill came up. They were unanimously in favor of the bill. No less because of their unquestioned admiration for its chief exponent who seemed only to gain in their esteem through his peaceful means of protests including the hunger strike. I suspect that the gene for civil disobedience is quite prevalent in the country, perhaps to the same extent as the gene which determines a liking for spicy food.
I asked who would comprise the Lokpal committee. Naturally, they responded, it should consist of the most fearless and honest persons in the country. A list of names was recanted. Most were ex-servicemen, journalists, bureaucrats and some indefatigable teachers (incidentally I do not recall a single politician or BCCI official mentioned).
I then proceeded to ask how these persons would be selected. Of course, they responded excitedly and in unison, the selection would be on the basis of their honesty. Indeed, the only metric would be honesty. They did less well in explaining how the degree of honesty would be determined, except to say that dishonesty can be quite apparent.
My next series of questions were a bit more challenging. I asked who would determine that the selected candidates were indeed honest. Would selection come from a pool of applicants? Who would shortlist the pool? Would there be a requirement for anonymity? Will there be a committee for the selection of the Lokpal committee? How would that committee be selected? Will it have the same requirement for honesty as the Lokpal committee? Will there be a committee for the selection of the committee for the selection of the Lokpal committee?
And so on and so forth.
By which time the students realized I had only engaged their enthusiasm facetiously to draw up a glaring contradiction of the Lokpal bill.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Translated, who regulates the regulator? If the answer is regulator the question will be asked again, and again, and again.
The students got the point, which was a mark of intellectual honesty for aspiring bureaucrats. For the Lokpal bill is merely a stimulus for bureaucrats. It is the very existence of regulation, regulators and the asymmetric power of regulators that is responsible for the corruption. Surely the cure cannot be the poison.
Consider a simple situation. When was the last time you had to pay the TTE extra money for a reservation on a train? Since the introduction of the Tatkal last-minute purchasing, I suspect people will have to jog their memories to answer that question. The Tatkal system has removed power from one bureaucrat – the ticket collector who hoarded many unsold seats on the train. Albeit simplistic this illustrates an important point – reduce the power of the bureaucrat.
The students in the discussion were an intellectually curious bunch. At least they did not give me the dull response that I have received from more accomplished individuals such as the "so you are against the Lokpal bill, are you pro-corruption or what?" As if one cannot be against corruption and against the bill. So what is the solution?
Participatory democracy. The middle class must vote and vote in greater numbers and hold the incumbent accountable. There should be election for high ranking officials, such as district judges and inspector general of police. Hold the bureaucrats accountable to the people. The only way to do that is to make their appointment and tenure conditional upon the approval of the people.
Democracy may be frustrating sometimes. And it is, as Winston Churchill observed, the worst form of government except all other forms of government.
It is important, as the great free market economist Milton Friedman stated, to create conditions, whereby the wrong people are forced to do the right thing. Limiting regulators and increasing accountability will go a long way in fighting corruption.
As for the redoubtable Anna Hazare, let Bollywood pay tribute to him by making a film dedicated to his heroics, starring A.K. Hangal as the idealistic Hazare. Please leave his musings out of the statute books. India already has too many regulations.
Dr. Saurabh Jha, MD MRCS, a British/Indian NRI, is an Assistant Professor of Radiology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, USA. With his natural flair for writing, Dr. Jha will be expressing his views on Bihar, Bihar-related issues, and other topics that are sure to grab the attention of the visitors of PatnaDaily.Com.