COLUMN SERIES | Using UT to Contain Corruption

Any random survey on Kashmir, or a one-to-one talk, reveals a riveting observation from Kashmiris – apathy and corruption in government offices. Total ruthlessness in the way officials pounce on the gullible citizen’s purse. Everywhere people report the sheer apathy of government officials and rampant corruption. The scale of the plunder and loot is unprecedented.

It doesn’t take much to realize that severe resentment of the Kashmiri youth and the actual genesis of the conflict in Kashmir emanates from decades of government apathy, misgovernance, nepotism, and corruption.

Until 2014 J&K got 10 percent of central funds with only 1 percent of the population and received Rs.1.14 lakh crore in grants over sixteen years between 2000 and 2016. Despite such a heavy inflow of funds into the state, accountability shown by former chief ministers and bureaucrats in the state was nil. They were as good as not being there.

In 2014, Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) report revealed 32,625 audit observations containing 8,518 inspection reports pertaining to the period 1998-2014 were outstanding as of March 31, 2014. The state governments had never bothered to file these reports or answer questions.

Many people have written much about Kashmir corruption. In 1991, Professor Riyaz Punjabi, former Vice Chancellor of Kashmir University, remarked: “Corruption has contributed to the growing divide between the people of this Muslim majority state and India.”

The succeeding era of Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad’s regime has also been summarised by Professor Sumantra Bose in his book Kashmir: The Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace as being fraught with “rampant corruption, with officials looting the exchequer at will; and mafia-style authoritarianism, marked by liberal use of police and gangs of professional thugs against any sign of opposition.”

Former Jammu and Kashmir Governor Jagmohan in his book, My Frozen Turbulence in Kashmir, too, concedes the same as he writes how political elites grabbed money from the Centre and even from agencies aboard for their own benefit. Successive governments at the Centre have continued with this Nehruvian legacy by compromising with the state on financial irregularities and rampant corruption. The state, on the other hand, has always used the conflict as an effective bargaining tool for its wrongdoings.

Irregularities and corruption are still rampant, even after JK is a UT now, and the revenue department – particularly at the lower level – shows exemplary courage in indulging in it openly. Racketeers, disguised as officers, are everywhere, and former chief ministers, much to the chagrin of unsuspecting Kashmiris, are still voicing their concern under the garb of right to suffrage.

People shouting statehood again are actually feeling stifled that under the new UT structure they would not be able to flex their corrupt muscles as before. They will keep inventing anti-India rhetoric all the life. Give them statehood, they will demand 370. Give them 370, they will demand autonomy. Give them autonomy, they will demand separation. Give them anything, they will demand something else. It is all about their personal glory and comfort; nothing about people.

The simmering anger that Kashmiris have shown from time to time has effectively been used by local politicians as a tool against India. Given a chance, they will do it again. People’s display of anger is opium for them.

Kashmir needs volunteers to return it lost glory, not vampires to suck its blood further. Each vampire is looking for vampire hours to wake up and strike. For now, it appears, UT administration has eclipsed those hours.

A strong model to contain corruption is the need of the hour. Some efforts are visible – such as the Chief Secretary-level meetings on corruption as well as plans for raiding corrupt government officials. But given the rot in the system, the government will need to gear up to chase corruption even more vehemently.

The symbolism around corruption in Kashmir makes for an interesting story. In October 2010, the J&K government released a list of 600 corrupt bureaucrats which included the names of a former minister, a former chief secretary, a former vice-chancellor of the agriculture university, and principal secretaries.

A similar anticorruption drive in 2007 by the then Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad found unaccounted millions of rupees stacked up in a minister’s home. Entire UT needs another such list and action thereof. People will hail the move if termites are treated sooner than later.

In Kashmir, there has been no other day when anticorruption bureau hasn’t booked a tehsildar, a naib tehsildar, or even a patwari for a revenue crime. If the government is willing to endear itself to the masses, it needs to swoop down heavily on such petty criminals who don’t bat an eyelid masking truth with lies. The administration needs to strike soon upon a case or a complaint crops up. Employees treating their offices as among one of their backyard strolls has to end.

In the new framework, governance can be improved in phases, beginning from the grassroots. Attendance can be monitored through modern technologies. Grievance redressal can be digitally monitored and officers made accountable. Delivery of citizen services can be tracked and the noncompliant officers penalized. There should be mechanisms to stop people from being victimized.

All arbitrary appointments done as favors by previous governments should be reviewed and the unqualified ones shown the door. All new appointments should be merit-based and transparent. A transparent system can only contain the disillusionment that Kashmiri youth have developed with the system.

The government should also begin a mechanism of transferring officials from Kashmir to other states within India. This is a powerful strategy that will help contain apathy and build agility in governance. Barring a few honest ones, employees up to the level of tehsildars must be the first to go – over the years they have helped build a strong land mafia. They have not spared ever mosques, not to speak of abandoned temples. The setting up of the Economic Offences Wing in March this year is a welcome step by the government and there should not be letting down of this impetus.

Kashmir can benefit by borrowing from Singapore’s Corruption Control Framework – a robust system that provides for zero tolerance of corruption. There are four distinct pillars of this model – laws, adjudication, enforcement, and public administration, resting on an unflinching political will and leadership.

Kashmir is the only place where a farcical narrative is weaved to cover corruption. Look closer and you will find that the entire Kashmir issue is weaved around the opportunity for organized and unrestricted loot of public money. If this corruption is arrested it will throttle the nexus and open a world of opportunities for ordinary Kashmiris. Containing corruption is the only road to peace!

Dr Sanjay Parva is a Kashmir-born writer and thinker and Dr Asim Chowdhury an academic and independent researcher.