By Avishek Deb
The annual report of corruption index released by the Berlin-based NGO Transparency International (TI) on February 21, 2018, ranks India 81 out of a total of 180 countries. This result is hardly surprising, considering the relative ease with which the recent PNB scam was perpetrated by Nirav Modi. The ranking is based on Corruption Perception Index (CPI), the universally accepted barometer for measuring corruption. CPI grants score to countries on a scale of 0 – 100, with 0 being highly corrupt and 100 being very clean, based on how corrupt their public sector is perceived to be. Even though India’s score remained constant at 40, it slid two places from where it was last year.
Corruption across the globe
The top five least corrupt countries are – New Zealand, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Switzerland. On the other end of the spectrum lie Syria, South Sudan, and Somalia. Western Europe with an average score of 66 tops the table while Sub-Saharan Africa with an average rating of 32 comes dead last. Two-thirds of countries scored below 50 with the global average coming to about 43. India’s performance falls short of the worldwide average.
The report highlights that majority of the countries have made little progress to eradicate corruption, mainly because it suits governments well. Further analysis shows that CPI not only measures public perception of corruption but also correlates with attacks on press freedom and reduction of space for civil society organizations. More than 90% of all journalists killed in the last six years belonged to countries having a score of 45 or less. Hungary, which saw a ten point decrease in the past six years is an alarming example of a state with restricted civil society liberties. Hungary is currently considering enacting legislation that threatens to curb NGOs and revoke their entitlements.
The poor performance of South Asia
India performed better than its neighbours- Sri Lanka (Rank-91), Maldives (Rank-112), Pakistan (Rank-117), Nepal (Rank-122) and Bangladesh (Rank-142). But the region, on the whole, has fared poorly. The average score of South Asian countries in 2013 was lower than any sub-region in the world. Despite six percent average economic growth in the past twenty years, more than 40 percent of the world’s poor live in South Asia. Transparent International has attributed this anomaly to rampant corruption prevalent in the region. Non-transparency in public organizations and rampant government interference in the work of anti-corruption bureaus are the key reasons responsible for the proliferation of corruption.
Even though India, Bangladesh, and Nepal have passed Right to Information laws, the report finds that requests for information were not being responded to adequately. In Bangladesh, for example, 29 percent of citizens reported facing harassment, and eight percent said they were compelled to pay additional costs when seeking information.
In spite of signing the UN Convention against Corruption which requires a commitment to implement strong whistle-blower protection laws, South Asian countries have failed to protect whistle-blowers facing reprisal.
Corruption in India
The survey singles out India as one of the “worst offenders” in the Asia-Pacific region, commenting that it scores high for bribery, has low press freedom and a high number of journalist deaths. Historically, India had an average rank of 75.32 from 1995-2016, reaching an all-time high of 95 in 2011 and a record low of 35 in 1995. The ranking took a hit in 2013-2014 (94) in the wake of the spectrum and coal scams. Since the change of government in 2014, its standing improved, staying below 80 until this year.
It is quite embarrassing to learn that a repressive regime like China has surged ahead of India by improving its ranking to 77.
The root cause of scandals in India is mainly political corruption rather than corporate corruption. The Lok Pal Bill, with all its defects, was hailed as a momentous step in eradicating corruption. Even though it has been five years since the bill was passed, its implementation is yet to be seen. The present government has delayed the appointment of the Lokpal citing the absence of a Leader of Opposition. This has drawn severe criticism from the Supreme Court which ruled that the government could go ahead with the appointment without consulting the Opposition.
The present government also passed the Whistle Blowers Protection (Amendment) Bill in 2015, diluting the provisions of the original bill by making whistle-blowers liable to prosecution. This defeats the very purpose of protecting a whistle-blower.
The Prevention of Corruption Bill in its current form metes out equal punishment to harassed as well as malevolent bribe givers. The amendment which seeks to rectify this has been repeatedly stalled in the parliament.The government has also been taking measure against thousands of NGOs that receive funds from abroad and cancelling their licenses for allegedly violating the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act. Critics have claimed that the government is using this tactic to suppress dissenting voices. Full transparency in the funding of political parties has fallen on deaf ears.
TI takes into account not only corruption in government bodies but also corruption in corporations. It assesses companies based on their reporting practices, measures taken to curb frauds and the extent to which earnings are disclosed. In this respect, the impressive performance by Indian companies is a silver lining for India. It may be because Indian law requires companies to provide key financial information on their subsidiaries. Indian companies have vastly outperformed their peers in other BRICS nations despite the fact that there is no law criminalizing corruption in the private sector.
Taking all the above factors into account helps us to look past the Government’s claims of a corruption free India and rationalize our inferior rank on the world stage. The reason ranking improved in PM Modi’s tenure till 2016 was not that he promoted anti-corruption measures but because no significant scandal broke out.
India should regard the CPI results as a warning sign. Amending laws inimical to whistle-blowers and granting full autonomy to anti-corruption watchdogs must be the topmost priority of the Government’s agenda. Corruption not only reduces confidence in the economy but also leads to a huge drain on natural and human resources. India must foster a culture of transparency and accountability if it desires to remain one of the fastest growing economies in the world.