Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Technology: A game changer in fight against corruption

“There is a difference between the dishonest bribe and the honest bribe.
The dishonest bribe is the same in every country, but the honest bribe is India's alone.”
- Gregory David Roberts, Author of Shantaram

Transparency International (TI), the international NGO leading the fight against corruption, defines the malaise as ‘the abuse of entrusted power for private gain’. In simple words, corruption implies the unjust use of power either to withhold rightful dues or to provide undue favours. TI’s Corruption Perceptions Index places India at 94th position out of 176 countries, reinforcing the perception that corruption is an accepted way of life in the Indian subcontinent.
In trying to understand the role of technology in fighting corruption, it is important to understand what causes corruption in the first place. The reasons can broadly be classified into two categories: One, of human frailties, such as greed, impatience and lack of values, and two, of systemic ills, constituted by excessive and complicated laws and opaque processes. It can be argued that the two main causes actually feed off each other.  
Both on the demand and supply side, the role of technology in fighting corruption has been transformational. While personal integrity still remains the cornerstone of a fair society, technology has played a major deterrent for the corrupt, and a messiah facilitator for the vigilant, by bringing in automation, transparency, detection, e-governance, online reporting and information sharing. Let’s see how.
The Demand Side
If knowledge is power, information is liberation. It is technology that has empowered every internet-enabled person with the arsenal of information. By making classified and secret information available from anonymous sources, Wikileaks marks the next generation of digital revolution in transparent governance.
Separate studies conducted by TI, E&Y and KPMG indicate that nearly 40% of Indians have firsthand experience in paying bribes for public services. Honest people had to resignedly lubricate the gears of the marketplace and government, till the era of online payment turned around tables.
Digitisation of information and computer-based allotments further reduced malpractice by minimizing human discretion. From housing schemes to government-aided programmes, information and application is just a click away. Bogus entries, the bane of welfare programmes, are now being checked through smart-card based online transfers and photo verification. Not too far in history, when Indian Railways opened the floodgates to online reservation, it brought ease and transparency to a system that had previously been riddled with corruption and favoritism. The last remaining traces of Inspector Raj are also being demolished by introducing computerized selection of inspection duties and online filing of time-bound reports.
The blessing of technology does not stop here. In our day-to-day lives, whether it is dereliction of duty by an auto driver, or the pending application for driving license, online system for grievance redressal simultaneously empowers the citizenry and threatens the wrong-doer. Even the judiciary, to a great-extent, has enabled online filing of petitions and tracking of cases, to avoid skullduggery in the chambers of justice. Education and health-care too are waking up to rein in technology to address long-standing woes.
Technology is also a tool for the awakened to mobilise public opinion and decimate graft. The Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship operates the website, through which citizens can report on the nature, number, pattern, types, location, frequency and values of actual corrupt acts that they experienced. Started in India, the initiative led to many convictions, and is now being duplicated in Greece, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Pakistan.
The Supply Side
It is said, that ‘The only force more ruthless and cynical than the business of big politics is the politics of big business.’ When greed meets with connivance, corruption assumes deadly proportions, causing unprecedented loss to the public exchequer. And when protectors of public interest actually turn into predators, corruption becomes harder to uncover. In 2008, the then Advisor to PM and current Governor of RBI, Mr Raghuram Rajan delivered a speech at Bombay Chamber of Commerce, explaining how most of India’s billionaires did not derive their wealth from IT or software, but from land, natural resources and government contracts.
One such breeding ground for underhand transactions and crony kickbacks was that of procurement, which was dealt with death blow by introduction of online bidding process. The judgements of the Supreme Court of India, cancelling allocation of coal blocks and spectrum as illegal, mandating instead e-auction of these services, is another example how technology brings in transparency perforce.
For ordinary citizens harassed by the rigmarole of law, technology offers quick and easy solutions such as online payment of taxes and e-filing of returns. Technology is increasingly being used by governments to restore people’s faith. The Philippine government, for instance, allows citizens to view tax spending data of government. It is a perfect example of how technology can build the value base in people and foster the sense of service, thereby scripting the last word in fight against corruption.
The Caveat
Experience has taught us that technology is a double-edged sword, capable of turning into a Frankenstein’s monster, endangering capital as well as confidential information.
The highly complex integration of inter-dependent technological systems makes it daunting to crack the source of corruption. The Rs 1.76 lakh crore 2-G scam, which involved various companies and channels, corroborates this fact. According to newspaper reports, Indian-owned Swiss bank account assets are to the tune of US$1456 billion in black money, worth 13 times the country's national debt! Besides, in developing nations like India, where internet has penetrated less than 20% of its population, technology is like a samurai sword gathering dust. Not to forget the employment and financial costs associated with establishing and maintaining technological set-ups.
To conclude
Even the bitterest pessimist will agree that the net effect of technology in good governance has been for the positive. There was a time when skeptics used to say, “Never believe anything until it has been officially denied.” Maybe it’s time for them to switch-over to, “Never believe anything until it has been technologically confirmed.”

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