Why Paying the Media to Uncover Corruption Would Work in India

Jennifer Kline’s recent post on this blog proposed a novel way to support and encourage investigative journalism that exposes corruption: When such exposés result in legal actions that impose substantial monetary penalties on wrongdoers, the responsible media outlet should receive a percentage of the penalty as a reward—comparable to how some countries have programs that pay whistleblowers a percentage of any monetary recoveries that result from the original information that the whistleblowers supplied. While Jennifer’s discussion of this idea was fairly general, and seemed to have in mind implementation in countries like the United States, her proposal may be especially suitable for a country like India. 

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Corruption at the Heart of India’s Coronavirus Crisis? Prime Minister Modi Must Answer for the PM Cares Fund

India’s unfathomable Covid tragedy has left the country gasping for breath, and no oxygen can be found. Hospitals are overrun, and are often unable to help even those lucky enough to be admitted. Desperate relatives are turning to social media and the black market for help, as beleaguered crematoriums shift from unprecedented 24/7 hours to the horrors of mass cremation to keep up with demand. In the midst of this appalling tragedy looms the question: Why was the government so unprepared? And, more specifically, whatever happened to the billions of dollars raised last year through the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (known as the “PM Cares Fund”)? 

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India’s Agriculture Reform Bills May Not Be Perfect, But They Can Help Fight Rampant Corruption

India’s farmers are up in arms, and have been for several months. In the midst of a cold Delhi winter, tens of thousands are braving tear gas, batons, and water cannons to protest a set of three new agricultural bills passed by the Modi government late last year. The government promises that these bills will bring about much needed reform in India’s agricultural sector, eliminating corruption in the state-run system and increasing the payout to farmers. Unfortunately, in its usual fashion, the Modi government opted to set aside federalist principles and run roughshod over democracy in introducing the reforms, contributing to the barrage of protests it now faces. And farmers have good reason to complain: the reforms signal an eventual, although not immediate, end to the government’s price floors (the “minimum support price” or MSP) for select crops. While India’s MSP system needs reform, the new bills offer insufficient protections and oversight, thus potentially enabling big business and middlemen, working with corrupt officials, to drive prices so low as to make small-scale farming impossible.

Despite these genuine and serious problems, the main reforms at the heart of these bills would do a lot of good—not least because these reforms would make major strides in addressing corruption as it exists now. And while the Modi government’s high-handed rollout of the bills has already done a great deal of damage, in terms of substance, a few key modifications to the bills could address the most serious concerns about the corrupt exploitation of farmers that the bill might otherwise foster. 

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Fast-Tracking Justice: India’s New(ish) Strategy to Curb Corruption

How do you deal with the problem of more than 6,000 corruption cases and nearly 5,000 criminal cases pending against politicians, some dating back almost 40 years? The answer, according to India’s Supreme Court: put a one-year time limit on cases involving politicians.

This decision, which was issued this past September in a “public interest litigation” case, seeks to increase public confidence in the judicial process and to make the legal system more effective in addressing India’s pervasive political corruption. Corrupt politicians in India are typically able to slow down legitimate prosecutions, for example by exploiting India’s complex court filing procedures, leading the cases to drag on for years or even decades. This delay increases the chances that key evidence will be lost or obscured—a process that corrupt defendants can and do help along by bribing, threatening, or even killing witnesses. By preventing cases from ending in conviction, corrupt politicians have created a de facto culture of impunity. The problem is particularly acute in the current parliament, where 43% of new members elected in 2019 had pending criminal charges. The Supreme Court’s order seeks to address this and other problems.

This isn’t the first time that the Supreme Court has ordered fast-tracking. The Supreme Court previously called for time-bound trials against politicians back in 2011, during the tenure of the corruption-riddled Congress Party, yet the case backlog remained. There is reason to believe, though, that this time is different. The current ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept into power in part by making anticorruption efforts a priority, and there are signs that the BJP’s general commitment to anticorruption may be having a meaningful impact in the context of the one-year order. Following the Supreme Court’s ruling, the highest courts in (most) states submitted action plans for dispatching cases, and India’s Solicitor General said that he is “100% serious” about completing trials within a year. Despite certain serious challenges to effective implementation of this new fast-tracking program, India’s renewed commitment to moving the wheels of justice more quickly could prove powerful in holding corrupt politicians accountable and restoring public confidence in the judiciary.

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Unholy Alliance: How and Why India’s Politicians Protect India’s Corrupt Godmen

In my last post, I explained how loopholes in India’s legal system have enabled self-proclaimed “godmen” to amass fortunes by facilitating money laundering. But these corrupt godmen could not build their illicit empires without protection from politicians. After all, the government could crack down on godmen’s activities by changing the laws, or even by ensuring adequate enforcement of the flawed laws that currently exist. The government has not done so in part because of a corrupt relationship between godmen and politicians. The politicians provide the godmen with political favors, special privileges (including sweetheart deals for the godmen’s business ventures), patronage appointments, and, perhaps most importantly, the preservation of the system of legal loopholes and minimal oversight that enables the godmen to amass their fortunes. In return, godmen provide politicians with a number of services. These services include the same money laundering services that godmen provide to businessmen. But the godmen also provide politicians with three other services in exchange for the politicians’ complicity.

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Godmen or Conmen? How India’s Religious Trust Laws Facilitate Money Laundering Empires

In the past two decades, India has witnessed the rise of so-called “godmen” (and “godwomen”), charismatic religious leaders who have amassed enormous fortunes. To take just a few of the most eye-popping examples: when the godman Sathya Sai Baba died in 2011, his holdings were valued at more than $9 billion. Another godman, Asaram Bapu, has a trust with an annual turnover of $49 million—which may seem like a lot, but pales in comparison to the over $1.6 billion in annual revenue earned by a company called Patanjali, controlled by yet another godman, Baba Ramdev. It would not be hard to supply many other examples. The godmen and their supporters will tell you that these empires are built on a combination of legitimate contributions and business savvy, and that the funds are used to support spiritual and charitable activities. But in fact there is ample evidence that the fortunes of these supposedly religious figures are tainted by extensive corruptiontax evasion, and money laundering.

One of the most common functions that godmen perform in the illicit economy is the conversion of so-called “black money” (unaccounted off-book money, often from illegal sources) into “white money” (or goods or services), in exchange for a hefty fee. Godmen are able to get away with this due to unfortunate features of India’s religious trust laws, which are opaque and riddled with loopholes, and leave religious trusts largely unchecked and unsupervised. Here’s how some of the godmen’s illicit schemes work:

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An Anticorruption Success Story: India’s Aam Aadmi Party Has Made Delhi Politics Much Cleaner

In 2011, India witnessed the largest anticorruption uprising in its history, as hundreds of thousands of people mobilized to protest against entrenched corruption and to push for the passage of national anticorruption legislation that had been stuck in parliament for decades. The movement failed to achieve that objective, but out of its ashes was born a new political party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The AAP, founded in 2013, made anticorruption its main focus, choosing as its symbol a broom to represent its goal of cleaning up Indian government. The AAP achieved its first major victory in 2015, when it won a landslide victory in the state elections in Delhi, India’s capital city. Many inside and outside of India naturally wondered: Would the AAP achieve its goals? Could it effectively govern a city of 19 million people, and succeed in curtailing entrenched corruption? After all, the challenges are enormous, and the international track record of anticorruption parties is rather mixed.

The AAP’s journey wasn’t smooth, and its first few months in office were marked by significant infighting and a general perception of dysfunction. But the AAP managed to turn things around, and in the February 2020 elections, the AAP won handily, gaining a decisive majority for the next five years. The AAP’s success is partly due to its popular policies on things like increasing spending on education and reducing the cost of electricity and water. But the AAP also succeeded in the polls because it followed through on its anticorruption agenda. Although it’s always hard to gauge the success of anticorruption efforts, there are two major pieces of evidence that indicate that the AAP really has taken major steps to clean up politics: 

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Improving India’s Right to Information Law to Protect Citizens

As I discussed in my last post, India’s Right to Information (RTI) law has proven to be a remarkably effective anti-corruption tool, for two main reasons. First, the law makes it easy for ordinary citizens to submit information requests. Second, the law creates a system of review by independent Information Commissions, at both the central and state levels, to ensure compliance. Citizens can appeal a government agency’s failure to provide information, or an insufficient or incomplete response to an information request, to the appropriate Information Commission, which are endowed with both autonomy and strong enforcement powers. But last July, the Indian parliament amended the RTI law—over the objections of both the opposition and civil society organizations—in ways that undermine the effectiveness of the law by giving the central government more control over the functioning of the Information Commissions.

My last post focused on criticizing these amendments, and I will not restate those criticisms here. Instead, I will take up another question: How should the government improve the RTI law? For while the law has indeed had a positive impact—as an anti-corruption tool among other things—its effectiveness is hampered by a number of important problems. Among the most serious is the risk of retaliation against RTI users. Such retaliation can take the form of harassment, threats, physical assault, and in some cases even murder. To take just one egregious example, this past December the activist Abhimanyu Panda was murdered in the state of Odisha, allegedly in connection with his vigorous use of the RTI law to expose corruption. (According to news reports and a fact-finding report by a civil society network, days before Abhimanyu’s murder he had filed multiple RTI applications asking for information concerning a subsidized food program intended for the poor. His requests sought information about the recipients and the grain stocks at particular locations; if there is corruption in the program, these are the sorts of documents that would be altered or made to disappear.) Sadly, Abhimanyu is far from the only victim. There have been over 442 documented attacks and over 80 murders of citizens directly related to the information they have sought under the RTI law. These cases end up being treated as criminal matters and investigated by the police—as they should be—but the institutions associated with implementing the RTI law should have a more active role in addressing and preventing the retaliation problem.

In particular, there are two measures the government could take—possibly under the existing legal framework—that would improve transparency and diminish the incentive to use the threat of retaliation to keep incriminating or embarrassing information out of the public eye. Continue reading

The 2019 Amendments to India’s Right to Information Law Threaten to Blunt a Powerful Anticorruption Instrument

India’s Right to Information (RTI) law, originally passed in 2005, gives all citizens the right to submit a request for information (in person, in writing, or online) to any public authority at the national, state, or local level; the request may concern any information related to the functioning and affairs of that authority. If the request is denied or unduly delayed, or if the information provided is incomplete, applicants may appeal, first to a designated Public Information Officer at the public authority to which the request was made, and then to special bodies called Information Commissions, established at both the state and national levels. These Information Commissions are designed to be autonomous and have the power not only to order timely production of requested information, but to levy penalties on public authorities for noncompliance and to award compensation to citizens whose requests were wrongfully denied or ignored.

India’s RTI law—which is one of the strongest such laws in the world, used by an estimated 4-6 million people annually—has proven to be a particularly effective anti-corruption tool. There are hundreds of examples of ordinary citizens using the RTI law to expose local government corruption, and the law has also unearthed some major national-level corruption scams. For instance, an RTI request filed by a civil society activist group revealed that a housing society on prime land in South Bombay, meant for war widows, was wrongfully given out to politicians, bureaucrats, and military officers; this so-called “Adarsh Society Scam” led to the eventual resignation of the Chief Minister, as well as criminal charges against several officials. Another civil society group used the RTI law to expose the “Commonwealth Games Scam,” in which funds associated with the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, earmarked for the social welfare of marginalized communities, had been wrongfully diverted. The exposure of this malfeasance led to an official investigation that ultimately resulted in the arrest and suspension of the responsible minister.

This past July, the Indian parliament amended the RTI law for the first time, despite resounding opposition. While there are indeed aspects of the RTI law’s implementation that need to be addressed—including the numerous vacancies at Information Commissioner posts, which has led to long delays and backlogs in RTI appeals—the amendments do not address any of these genuine pressing issues. Instead, the amendments focused on the appointment, tenure, and salary of the Information Commissioners. Proponents of the changes claimed that these amendments were minor technical fixes, designed to streamline the appeals process and improve functioning. In fact, the amendments pose a serious threat to the autonomy of the Information Commissions, and thus to the efficacy of the RTI law in exposing wrongdoing that could embarrass or incriminate powerful political figures and their cronies. Continue reading

India’s New Electoral Bond Scheme Won’t Reduce Electoral Corruption. It Will Make the Problem Worse.

Indian elections have long been celebrated as a festival of democracy—in part for their sheer and increasing scale, with over 900 million voters and thousands of political parties registered. Election expenditures have also been on the rise. India’s last national elections were the most expensive elections ever held anywhere in the world, with an estimated expenditure of Rs. 55,000 crores ($7.74 billion)—much of which was financed through private donations. In India as elsewhere, all this private money in politics raises concerns about corruption, both legal and illegal. This problem is exacerbated by a lack of transparency.

Under the rules as they existed until two years ago, individuals and domestic for-profit companies could contribute to political parties via cash, check, or demand drafts. Political parties are required to file an annual income statement, listing both sources of income and expenditures, with the Election Commission, a constitutional oversight body. These statements are publicly accessible under India’s Right to Information law. However, contributions below Rs. 20,000 ($280) could be anonymous, and political parties traditionally exploited this loophole to avoid disclosure of donors. The total share of income from unknown sources has been steadily increasing for all six major political parties, and in the last returns filed for 2017-18, income from unknown sources was over half (51.38%) of these parties’ collective income.

Over the past two years, there have been several reforms to campaign finance. The most significant reform has been the replacement of cash donations with a new mechanism for political donations, so-called “electoral bonds.” Under this system, the threshold for anonymous cash donations was reduced by a factor of ten, but private parties can now make anonymous donations via a bond with the State Bank of India (a public sector bank) in fixed denominations ranging from Rs. 1,000 ($15) to Rs. 1 crore ($1.5 million), during allotted windows. These donations remain anonymous not only to the general public, but also to the recipient political party.

The stated objective of these reforms is to target the practice of money laundering in campaign finance and increase transparency. In a previous post on this blog, written shortly after the new scheme was introduced, Abhinav Sekhri argued with cautious optimism that this tool, though imperfect, was indeed a step in the right direction. I disagree. In fact, the electoral bond system has decreased transparency and increased the potential for corruption, for several reasons: Continue reading