Saturday, March 3, 2012



Could this happen to Belize?
Toronto Star – March 3, 2012

For decades, Bihar [state] was a byword for all that ailed India. This fertile northern state enjoyed a reputation as one of the most corrupt places in a country plagued by sleaze. Bihar’s politicians, police and criminals fused into a malevolent nexus. Venal [means “open to bribery”] politicians and officials siphoned development funds to fill their own coffers. Young people moved in search of a better life. The only thriving industries were kidnapping and protection rackets.

At sundown, traders shuttered their businesses and people hurried indoors as armed gangs took over the streets.

That was then. Today Bihar boasts the fastest growth rates of India’s 28 states. Its economy is expanding at an astonishing rate of more than 14 per cent, far ahead of the national average of 7.5 per cent.… These days Biharis throng to shopping malls and restaurants. Movie theatres again draw late-night crowds and real-estate prices are rising.

There are many components to Bihar’s success. But surely none is quite as drastic as its war on corruption…. Bihar – once that bastion of graft – is now “the least corrupt state” in India.

That claim comes at a moment when the national self-confidence of the world’s biggest democracy has been blighted by the stain of malfeasance. The term of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has yielded revelations of one wrongdoing after another. Pressured by public attention and alert courts, at least three members of parliament, including a cabinet minister, and several high-ranking officials and corporate executives, have been sent to prison for allegedly looting taxpayer’s money. They might have gone scot-free had not millions of outraged Indians come out into the streets in support of an anti-graft movement launched by a septuagenarian Gandhian named Anna Hazare.

Against this dismal background, Bihar stands out. While the sources of its success may be dramatic, they aren’t particularly mysterious. They are rooted – as has so often been the case in other successful anti-corruption fights around the world – in a simple ingredient: political will.

It all started in 2005, when Nitish Kumar, a now 60-year old former engineer with a reputation for simplicity and uprightness, took over as the state’s chief minister, unseating a scam-tainted politician named Lalu Yadav and his wife, Rbri Devi. The couple, surrounded by hordes of scheming relatives and caste loyalists, had ruled the state for nearly 15 years and left it at the bottom of virtually all development rankings.…

Soon after taking over as chief minister, Kumar declared that his first priority was “to establish the rule of law with justice and then root out corruption from the state.” He started by issuing a public declaration of his own modest property and demanded that all his cabinet colleagues do the same. He recently extended the dictat to nearly half a million civil servants and police. Now both citizens and tax officials can easily keep an eye on who is getting richer.

To promote transparency, all complaints of bribery will soon be uploaded to YouTube, making for a palpable shaming effect. …

He has also focused on the lackadaisical justice system, a notorious problem in India, where trials often drag on for years while the accused continue to enjoy the fruits of their crimes. The chief minister set up special fast-track courts that have convicted some 66,000 criminals over the past six years for crimes ranging from murder and kidnapping to stealing public funds. Those convicted are barred from getting government contracts. Today, Bilhar is far ahead of even resource-rich Delhi in sending criminals to jail.

Last year, Kumar upped the ante by enacting a law that empowers the Bilhar government to confiscate any ill-gotten property, pending trial, and turn it into a school or health clinic. If the accused wins the case, the property is returned (plus interest). “The basic objective… is to instill a sense of fear in the minds of corrupt public servants,” wrote Kumar on his blog. When they see that their property earned through corrupt practices is ultimately seized by the government, they will realize the futility of amassing wealth.”

Already about 20 officials, including a former state police chief, have been caught in the dragnet. Three have seen their property confiscated, sending a powerful deterrent message to potential bribe-takers around the state.

Another Kumar law, the Right to Public Services Act, imposes deadlines on the provision of around 50 government services. Officials used to delay such requests, a common tactic to extort bribes. Now officials entrusted with providing these services face penalties if they miss the deadline (30 days to issue a driver’s licence, for example).…

Kumar’s war on corruption has had a dramatic effect of government services. His administration built nearly 2,400 km of road in 2011, compared with just 415 km in 2004, the year before he took over. The administration has opened 15,000 schools. Crime rates have plummeted. In state elections in 2010, voters rewarded him, awarding his ruling coalition a record 206 out of 243 seats in the state legislature….

The sense of hope is palpable. It is best symbolized by a primary school in a light-yellow, three-storey modern building in an upper -class neighbourhood of Patna. In the first case of its kind in India, the Bihar government confiscated the house from an allegedly corrupt senior official under trial. The nearly 100 students of the school are all from poor Dalit (oppressed) castes. Their previous school was a dark, dingy two-room space next to a stinking open sewer. The students now play on manicured lawns, study in classrooms with marble floors and use flush toilets and hot water. The novel experiment encourages Indians to believe that unwavering political will can bring about dramatic improvements and make the country a real beacon of democracy. Nitish Kumar and his resurgent Bihar could well serve as their mascot.

No comments: