“It takes a babu to out-babu another babu”

After 26 years of service in the state and central government, former IAS officer T R Raghunandan now heads ipaidabribe.com (IPAB), an initiative by the NGO Janaagraha, to tackle corruption. Three months after its launch, the site now has 2350 reports from all over the country from the public on paying/not paying bribes. Around 1050 of these reports are from Bengaluru.

Bengaluru-based Raghunandan, 51, has served as Secretary of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj for Karnataka and as Joint Secretary in the Union Ministry of Panchayat Raj, before retiring voluntarily in 2009. He is a consultant on fiscal decentralisation and local governance to international development agencies such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Citizen Matters interviewed Raghunandan on his foray into the non-government sector and the change he hopes to make through IPAB.

Excerpts from the interview:

Raghunandan started off with the genesis of ipaidabribe.com. 

It’s a question of change of processes. Pic: Navya P K

The idea of ipaidabribe.com goes back two years. The founders of Janaagraha – Ramesh and Swathi Ramanathan – were having a discussion with one of the board members. They, more in jest than anything else, said that it is difficult to control corruption, so at least do the second best thing – a market price discovery mechanism for corruption. People can report on the website, and from there a picture of corruption will emerge. The basic objective was that you would be able to find out what a policeman charges for jumping a traffic light for example; that’s how it started.

Corruption is systemic

But personally for you, what motivated you to be part of this initiative? As a government officer, you could have tackled corruption within the system.

I wouldn’t say that while I was in the government I was particularly ineffective. I had good ministers during much of my jobs and long tenures. Sometimes what frustrates government officers is that they work with bad ministers and get transferred frequently, so they become ineffective. But I was able to ensure, at least by my personal conduct, a modicum of compliance with law. I was sure that people below me were corrupt. It is impossible to chase down every single person.

But I didn’t leave the government because I was frustrated and couldn’t handle corruption. I left because I had run my course and I felt I would be more useful outside. So when I stepped outside, it gave me the latitude to work on two things that were very close to my heart – one is anti-corruption and the other is decentralisation. Decentralisation in local governments is something I’ve worked for, for the better part of a decade.

There is a pattern of IAS officers – like Jayaprakash Narayan of Loksatta, Aruna Roy etc – who do major work in their lives after quitting their jobs. Why do you think that’s happening?

The good thing and the bad thing about being in the government is that you are working in a number of departments, so you get a lot of knowledge about them. You are transferred from one department to a completely unrelated department. You learn very fast, you become an expert very quickly in a particular subject and then 3-4 years later, when you are really at the pinnacle you have to forget it all as quickly as you learned it, because you have to adjust to the new specialisations.

In my case I thought it was a waste – if I gained almost 10 years of invaluable experience in decentralisation and allowed it to be frittered away by being on top of some other job. So I would end up becoming a generalist when I could have contributed much more. It’s like sailing from port to port, and suddenly you don’t want to be a sailor, you want to drop anchor.

So within bureaucracy, the system of appointments is not very effective?

No, because generalists would be moved from one sector to another. It also speaks of a certain colonial mindset. The colonial administrative system always believes that an outsider knows best, so bureaucracy is supposed to be the enlightened outsider who knows everything from rural development through health and power sector. It is believed that people who work within these sectors have vested interests and that they are not able to appreciate the larger context. I don’t think that is true at all.

First of all, individual systems are terribly complex and it might not be possible for an outsider to come and understand all the nuances. I think the generalised approach to administration is depriving the government of the benefit of people who have a lot to contribute as specialists.

In your career, have you met a lot of officials who were very efficient?

Yes, I have met many. But I must say that the IAS does not provide any incentive for anybody to be effective. In this system, you are recruited at the age of 23 or 24, and in this almost brahminical nature – you are always considered to be superior to somebody else till you retire at around 60. It is not conducive to retention and fostering of efficiency. It’s like saying that you get a century in your first test match so you could be captain forever.

People should have incentives, and have to constantly exercise their intellect. I have seen a lot of mediocre people in the IAS just rise simply because of the fact that they did not make any mistakes. Your promotion system is dependent upon how many mistakes you make. And the best way of not committing mistakes is to not do anything.

Can you give some instances where you were able to stop corruption when you were working in the government?

I used to be Managing Director of the Spices Trading Company – a government company that supplies dry fruits and spices to various agencies – participating in tenders and competing with private sector. We had won contracts from the most prominent temples and then the Purchase Manager of a temple demanded a bribe. I was able to contact the vigilance authorities of the state concerned and with the help of this gentleman’s superiors, we were able to record his voice on the phone. It was not the day of sting operations, but then finally he was arrested and suspended.

There have been other instances. I was part of investigations into granite mining in Bangalore district. A CID case was filed and it took many, many years; I believe that the accused got off scot-free due to lack of evidence. I was also once able to catch a senior colleague of mine for diverting palm oil at a premium; he was fudging the public distribution system sales, marking false sales in ration cards. I collected a lot of evidence. The case was before the Upalokayukta at that stage and having subjected to two days of cross examination, ultimately the person was let off, which I thought was a pity because the evidence was quite strong against him.

So even within the bureaucracy, is it difficult to bring a senior officer into account – as in this case, despite the strong evidence?

Yes, I think why Karnataka is so corrupt today is, for the last 20 years bureaucracy has been lax on its offenders. We should have retained certain strictness in the way we dealt with offenders. People used to be lenient on the basis of community, caste etc., which I think we have to pay for. And sadly a lot of honest people are quite lenient. When it comes to seeing corruption among their colleagues, they ignore it. This lack of action contributes equally to the increase in corruption.

IPAB and other initiatives

In ipaidabribe.com, do so many reports on corruption give a negative impression that nothing can be done without bribery?

"15% of the people who are reporting on our website are saying that they have not paid bribes. To me, 15% is a significant number considering the circumstances."

No, it doesn’t. Understanding the dimension of a problem is halfway in finding a solution. And not all reports are of people paying bribes. In fact, the value of someone who writes a post saying that he/she did not pay a bribe or didn’t have to pay a bribe, is tremendous. And a very interesting thing is, consistently, from the point we started till today, the ratio between the reports of ‘I paid a bribe’, ‘didn’t pay a bribe’, ‘didn’t have to pay a bribe’ is 85%, 10% and 5%.

So let’s look at it the other way – 15% of the people who are reporting on our website are saying that they have not paid bribes. All we need to do is to get a critical mass of such people, the rest will fall in line. To me, 15% is a significant number considering the circumstances. We didn’t know that these people existed.

Pic courtesy ipaidbribe.com

How is ipaidabribe’s new Khata without Corruption Campaign (KCC) progressing?

KCC is in line with Janaagraha’s philosophy, to not prescribe to somebody else what you haven’t tried on yourself. So KCC was initiated in Whitefield, to say that if I am giving advice on getting khatas, then I must help my community to obtain khatas. We’ve just started.

As usual, in every community there are some prime drivers. A few people are very enthusiastic and willing to give their time; others are waiting and watching. But I’m sure that once the first set of applications is given, the trickle will turn into a flood. And moreover we have the example of what people have done in Rajarajeshwari Nagar, they’ve done gandhigiri and got it. I think one of the most important things is that we should be looking at successful campaigns of this nature and try to collate their effects. It’s not difficult.

Getting khatas and issues relating to land are areas where corruption is very high.

Absolutely. This is a place which needs action from all sides. There needs to be action at a policy level. And at the same time, even when the policy systems are being rationalised and formed, citizens must demand services from the registration department and BBMP.

Are you planning to extend the khata campaign to the whole city?

This is restricted to a particular community.  We want to see the results here, then there are patterns that emerge. Currently we are focusing on one, we have not thought beyond that.

At ipaidabribe.com, are you pushing for any policy reforms?

Yes, of course. That is really going to be the key to our effectiveness. Next year at this time people are not going to judge us by how many reports we have received, they are going to ask us what’s happened after all this. We are going to come up with Janamahiti reports.

The first Janamahiti report is nearly complete – it’s on motor vehicles, on transportation sector. Second one is on registration. These are citizens’ advisories. A Janamahiti report will have two phases – one is for the citizens detailing what they have to do; the other is directed towards the government pointing out the loopholes in laws and the weakness in processes that allow corruption to flourish.

Your site says that you will submit your recommendations to the government. By your experiences so far, what would be your recommendations?

Let me take for example over-the-counter services, like the vehicle driving license. Now why is it that you have to go to seven counters in the RTO office to get a license? So we have made suggestions on how to change the workflow so as to reduce the transaction time from 40 minutes to 5 minutes. You don’t have to change any rules or regulations. Just change the seating pattern and the way the person at the counter reacts to you.

Today what happens is, you go pick up your application form from one place, go for your I-test to somebody else, go to the post office to buy an envelope, come back and give your photograph to the fourth person, and then submit you application at the sixth place. Why can’t you have one person dealing with all those?

You can get a token, go to one counter – like a relationship manager in a bank. Today, banks have changed their processes – you are transacting only with one person, he’s multitasking. In a government office, individuals do individual things, and you are made to run around. So you pay speed money and ask an agent to do all the running around. So it’s a question of change of processes.

And more use of technology?

Yes, more use of technology and simple, rational workflow systems. Many countries that are not corrupt provide exactly the same level of service. They don’t have this kind of a lop-sided or tortuous route.

The site says that you are also planning to start a Whistleblower’s corner…

It will be a space within the website where those who have detailed information about corruption in government, can report. It is still in idea stage only, we are working out the details. There are two things – first, the bill* has to come out, second when I discussed this issue with some government officials they showed doubts about the workability of this aspect. So we have decided to wait instead of applying a half-baked idea right now. There are also plans to start a mobile application – which will allow users to access IPAB through their phones – and a helpline which will give advice to public on how to go about getting their job done. Both these might be launched in December. But we are clear that none of our applications will mention the names of government officers in public. Mentioning names is a serious affair – without proper verification it can amount to defamation and gives a huge incentive for malafide reports.

*(The Whistleblower’s Bill or the Public Interest Disclosure (Protection of Informers) Bill, 2009, seeks to protect any person who makes a complaint of corruption or mismanagement against a central government official or institution.)

Online many people talk about corruption. But do you think there will be good participation in an active campaign on the ground?

As I said with all campaigns you find a few people who are like live wires, the others will follow. It’s all a question of getting those live wire people together. That’s the case anywhere in the world. A large number of people follow a trend. So I am not necessarily looking at thousands of people joining in. A few people coming together, is good.

Do you think as a former government officer you have a lot to contribute to this campaign?

Yes, sadly the government processes are so complicated that it takes a babu to out-babu  another babu. It’s an advantage to me. And also there are many honest people in the government. But they are also very careful, reticent people. They will not open up to a third party. But I think being a former officer myself; people in the government are very sweet to me.

The Transport Department Commissioner has said that he is ready to take action based on the reports on your site.

Honestly I am a little uncomfortable with that, because then you set in place a set of wrong incentives. Tomorrow this website will become a battleground for mudslinging at somebody or malefide reports. Because honestly we don’t verify whether it is true or not. How can we verify it? It is impossible. I would rather he actually looked at systemic improvement. We are not here to point fingers at somebody. I don’t think in the long term it will achieve much. 

If all analysis and recommendations are based on unverified reports, isn’t it likely that it is flawed?

You can take it anyway. If you say that it can be flawed, I can also ask what proof of flaw you have. When we started the site, we did discuss this issue. But crowdsourcing has been proven to be a very reliable way of gathering a large body of data, like in the case of wikipedia. In wikipedia, people all over the world enter information and it is managed by a team of 30 people. But the site is used by everyone as a good source of information.

"If you decentralise without curbing corruption, then you decentralise corruption."

If it is just 10 people reporting on a site, we can say that the chances of misinformation is high. But if thousands of people are reporting, like in IPAB, it is difficult to believe that so many people will give wrong information.

Are you involved with any other development programmes?

I do a lot of work on decentralisation with panchayats across the country. I’m keenly interested in providing capacity development to panchayats using technology. To my mind, if the country has to progress, decentralisation and anti-corruption must go hand-in-hand. If you decentralise without curbing corruption, then you decentralise corruption.

What are your other interests?

I’m interested in heritage and try to work in this sector. I’m very fond of old cars and I drive around in old cars in my spare time. I also make models of cars, it’s like my workshop. It makes me feel relaxed. I like working with my hands. But I don’t get as much time as I wish.

Having moved from the government to the non-government sector, which do you find more interesting?

I have found government very interesting. And on reflection, I think I left government at just the right time. And obviously I’m on a very steep learning curve. The biggest change for me is that in the government I was considered rookie, I mean if I said something in a meeting, people would say ‘you are still young, you still have years of training left’.

Here I am a dinosaur, there is a huge generation gap with my colleagues and I really enjoy working with people who are half my age. I am learning a lot and that is something I tell my government friends they are missing out on, because they are with their peers, they really don’t know what new India is about. I think the future is about crossing over. The people who cross over don’t become stale.

About Navya P K 241 Articles
Navya P K is a former senior staff journalist at Citizen Matters, and a freelance journalist based in Kerala.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for a very insightful interview. Though one is tempted to paint the entire IAS force with a wide brush and call it the reason for many of India’s ills, it is nice to see that there are well meaning officers who have the intention of service rather than self-enrichment. It is clear that the colonial mindset of a general manager being in-charge of different departments at different times is not effective. A person cannot run health care one day and road traffic on another; The system has to change and to allow specialists to enter and grow in their areas of expertise. To reduce the intention of corruption, perhaps the UPSC system that trains the IAS officers should instill some kind of a pledge for honesty and service – something that these officers will agree to live by through their careers – and also periodically review and re-train them.

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