Opportunity to dislodge corruption monster

The shameful scandals relating to the Commonwealth Games (CWG) 2010, scheduled to begin in New Delhi on October 3, which are dominating media headlines in the final run-up to the games, have beamed a harsh spotlight on an issue that most citizens prefer to gloss over: open, uninterrupted and continuous corruption in government and the public sector. Yet it’s foolish to ignore that the Geneva-based Transparency International (TI) ranks India among the world’s most corrupt countries.

Little purpose is likely to be served by highlighting the magnitude and diversity of corruption in contemporary India, except to stress that it weighs most heavily on the poorest and most vulnerable citizens of society. According to a TI study, in 2008 the country’s estimated 80 million households below the poverty line were obliged to pay bribes aggre-gating Rs.800 crore to officials of the Central, state and local governments. This shocking revelation should conclusively quash the soft-line argument that official corruption is an acceptable concomitant of economic development. Therefore innovating ways and means to fight the scourge of corruption has become an urgent national priority.

The first initiative required is official revocation of the national goal of devolving the commanding heights of the economy upon the State (i.e Central and state governments). Public sector enterprises promoted at great cost to the economy and manned in the main by under-qualified, over-promoted clerical cadre personnel need to be liquidated and the proceeds of sale of their assets valued at a phenomenal Rs.2003,000 crore should be reinvested in the education and health of generation next — the world’s largest child popu-lation. With government monopolies getting out of business, official corruption will be sharply reduced even as intensified private sector competition pushes prices downwards.

The next obvious priority is to overhaul the police and justice delivery machinery so that corrupt officials can be speedily investigated, prosecuted and sentenced. In this context the justice ministry’s proposal to add 5,000 court complexes and 10,000 judges to the crumbling judicial infrastructure needs to be implemented immediately.  Coterminously, the readily available recommendations of the National Police Commission need to be implemented to ensure that each state’s police force is freed from the shackles of the home ministries and made answerable to independent, elected directors of public prosecution.

The silver lining of the CWG scandal which has disgraced India within the comity of democratic nations, is that 24/7 television has massively impacted the huge scale, brazenness and magnitude of corruption in government and its agencies upon the national consciousness. Simultaneously it has served the purpose of revealing that there is no shortage of solutions to get the corruption genie back into the bottle. Yet the primary requirement is sustained pressure of public opinion to force governments and politicians to act towards dislodging the corruption monster from the collective back of the nation.

Concerted campaign for children’s rights

The Prevention of Offences Against the Child Bill 2009, widely expected to be approved by the Union cabinet shortly, is overdue legislation to legally address pervasive violation of children’s rights in India. The Bill, drafted by the Union ministry of women and child development (WCD), is umbrella legislation that will make all forms of abuse — social, physical, sexual and economic — punishable by law and prescribes strict penalties and imprisonment for all violators, including parents.

The overwhelming majority of Indians tend to subscribe to the patriarchal definition of the harmonious Indian family unit in which children are routinely expected to unquestionably obey parents and elders who know what’s best for them. However there is a swelling body of evidence which indicates that behind the façade of the harmonious Indian family, violation of children’s rights and child abuse is rampant within households across the country. According to a 2007 study conducted by the WCD ministry of the status of children in the age group 5-18 in 13 states, 75 percent of them are physically abused. Moreover, over 53 percent of all children suffer sexual abuse from family members. The plain truth is that within households countrywide — including the educated middle class — the idea of inner-family democracy and the right of children to be involved in debate, discussion and decision-making is rarely entertained.

While this Bill should be welcomed by all right-thinking members of society, it’s important to note that the country’s statute books are already filled with dead letter legislation, practised more in the breach than observance. Therefore passage of this Bill needs to be orchestrated with a national awareness campaign to educate and sensitise the populace about children’s rights. An unambiguous message needs to be nationally disseminated: child abuse and violence against children is prohibited by law and is likely to invite prosecution.

Moreover in the Indian context where police and judicial callousness is normative, it’s imperative to educate police personnel and judicial officers about the cause and purpose of the new legislation. Simultaneously a system of redressal including child helplines and counseling centres must be set up at village and district levels to help children and families cope with issues related to child abuse.

The bottomline is that India’s 450 million children have suffered grim conditions of deprivation, neglect and lack of legal protection for far too long. While the well-drafted Prevention of Offences against the Child Bill 2009 is welcome, there’s a clear and present danger that it will go the way of other well-intentioned legislation such as the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, the Juvenile Justice Act, 2000, and Commission for Protection of Child Rights Act, 2005, whose child protection provisions are widely ignored. Indian society, particularly the country’s self-centred establishment including the intelligentsia which dominates the public discourse, needs to make a determined effort to place children — the country’s future — at the centre of the national development agenda.