August 27, 2023

Chinks in the Anti-Corruption Armour

PRIME Minister Narendra Modi, every other day, rails against the corrupt rule of the Congress and UPA governments in the past and targets the corruption of those ruling regional parties who are arrayed against the BJP. 

From the outset, Modi has tried to project the BJP government and himself as incorruptible and as those who will not tolerate any form of corruption (Na khaunga na khane dunga).  This is supposed to be in stark contrast to the record of the various opposition parties when they were in government. 

This corruption-free narrative has been sustained by ensuring that no real probe is conducted by any official agency of cases of high level corruption during the past nine years. Agencies like the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) have launched scores of investigations against opposition politicians and ministers in non-BJP state governments.  The ED, in particular, under the leadership of the notorious Sanjay Mishra, seems to smell out corruption only in non-BJP political circles.

The record of the Modi government, as far as corruption is concerned, is also kept clean and sanitised with the Lokpal, a body set-up solely for looking into  governmental corruption, becoming a toothless and non-performing institution.  The Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act was passed in 2013 by the UPA government after the anti-corruption movement launched by Anna Hazare. It took the Modi government five years to finally appoint the Lokpal members – four judicial and four non-judicial members – in 2019.  Three years hence, there is no report of any substantive case or complaint being enquired into by the Lokpal.  In fact, it is a mystery what the Lokpal is actually doing. 

As for the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) is concerned, the constitutional body which scrutinizes government spending, it has been remarkably cooperative with the union government in not exposing any major misuse of government funds. In the case of the Rafale deal, the CAG had produced a whitewashed report about any misuse of funds in the purchase of the fighter jets from the French company. 

However, a recent report of the CAG has revealed serious mal-practices in government spending on a highway project – the Dwarka Expressway.  According to the CAG, the project’s construction cost went up 14 times more than the approved cost by the cabinet committee on economic affairs.  Originally, the cost approved was Rs 18.20 crore per kilometre, which eventually rose to an astounding Rs 250.77 crore per kilometre.  The report points out the absence of a detailed project report and other questionable decisions.  If such a prestigious project in the National Capital Region can so extravagantly benefit some concerned parties, one wonders what scale of corruption exists in other highway projects and other infrastructure projects.

 The CAG has further exposed how scams have been perpetuated in central government welfare schemes like the Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojna (PM-JAY).  The CAG found that Rs 6.97 crore was disbursed for treatment of 3,446 patients who were found to be dead as per medical records. Nearly 7.5 lakh beneficiaries registered under the PM-JAY were linked with a single mobile number.  Moreover, though PM-JAY is a paperless and cashless service, in many states, numerous patients had to pay cash of varying amounts, despite being covered under the scheme.  Various other flaws in the database and validation were detected.

One of the biggest claims of the Modi government is that by digitalising payments for the welfare schemes, middlemen and corruption have been eliminated.  However, the scams in the PM-JAY show that all such digitalised schemes are vulnerable to malpractices. 

This apprehension is confirmed by another revelation that there is a major scam in the disbursement of minority scholarships. A CBI probe has found that about 53 per cent of the institutions active under the minority scholarship programme were fake and that corruption in as many as 832 institutions has led to Rs 144 crores being siphoned off in the last five years.  The Modi government may well claim that such scams and siphoning off of funds are being done by scamsters in the states and there is no corruption involved at the level of the central government. But this is something which needs to be probed seriously given the fact that the central agencies which are charged with the work of curbing corruption are not willing to take up this task.

Anyway, the wall of protection surrounding corruption at the central level has been slightly breached by the latest CAG report.

(August 23, 2023)