Behind every great fortune lies a great crime-Honore de Balzac
Corruption and the abuse of official position by public servants and ruling élite is a global scourge and is more pronounced in developing countries where the officials at the helm of affairs build their fortunes instead of strengthening the institutions. Its sweep is so wide that the public at large feel that the battle to curb corruption is futile as it is never high on the agenda of political parties with exception of Aam Admi Party born out of Anna Hazare’s massive anti-corruption protest movement of 2011 which demanded check on corruption and rein in bureaucracy. However, AAP Government too failed to get a bill that could enforce anti-corruption measures through the Government.
The Central Vigilance Commission, as part of its efforts to promote probity in public life and to make a corruption-free society, has been observing ‘Vigilance Awareness Week’ every year since 2000 and this happens to be the week in which the birthday of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (31st October) falls. ‘Independent India@75: Self Reliance with Integrity’ is the theme for this year’s Vigilance Awareness Week beginning October 26 to November 1, 2021. Observance of Vigilance Awareness Week is one of the tools used by the Commission to bring together all stakeholders to collectively participate in the prevention of, and the fight against corruption and to raise public awareness about the existence, causes and gravity of and the threat posed by corruption.
Though punishment and penal actions delivered quickly are effective deterrents to corruption, the spirit behind the observance of Vigilance Awareness Week is to sensitize the public against the menace of corruption. However, the public perception is that the crusade against corruption is targeted at lower and middle rung officials alone and there has neither been any arrest of a top bureaucrat, politician, or a big business person in corruption cases and the situation looks so hunky-dory as if all is well with the system.
Three decades back, Rajiv Gandhi as PM had publically admitted that of every rupee spent on welfare schemes, only 15 paisa reach the common man, an observation that the Supreme Court reiterated in its Aadhar judgment. Similar views were expressed by RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat who during his recent visit to J&K said that 80% of what was done for Kashmir valley, used to end up in the pockets of political leaders and not reach people. Union Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah in his historical speech in the Rajya Sabha while moving the J&K reorganization Bill 2019 on 5th of August 2019 had mentioned widespread corruption in the state and linked it with terrorism. After the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A, Governor Satyapal Malik also admitted that corruption is deep-seated in Kashmir and now Manoj Sinha after being appointed as Lieutenant Governor of UT of Jammu & Kashmir ensured corruption-free and transparent governance and zero tolerance for corruption. Successive Chief Ministers of erstwhile J&K in the last two decades have also shown their concerns for the widespread corruption and all of them ensured good governance and corruption-free administration. Mehbooba Mufti, for example, in March 2017 had sent a clear message that her Government would not tolerate corrupt practices at any level in the administration and asked the State Vigilance Organisation (now ACB) not to succumb to pressure from any quarter while taking FIRs and verifications to the logical conclusions.
One can infer that successive regimes at the Centre and in the State though honestly felt concerned about the menace of corruption but, unfortunately, their approach to containing the same was not limited but equally faulty as they seldom took the onus on themselves and failed to evolve a credible institutional mechanism to deal with it.
For example, after the abrogation of article 370 in August 2019, ACB J&K registered several fraudulent corporate loans which turned bad causing loss to the tune of hundreds of crores to one of the state-owned banks. These loans were sanctioned mostly to the political-business élite by the Management of the bank from the year 2007 to 2018. The point is how these unscrupulous borrowers managed huge sums of loans from bank in guise and cleverly siphoned them off with impunity and why these frauds were not detected and reported by the bank Management or reported by any of the party which was in power in the erstwhile state? The reason is obvious. Those who were in power treated the bank as their fiefdom and used the bank’s resources to promote their family business and personal careers. The size of this day-light robbery covered up by the Management of the bank as “non-performing assets” or NPA was such that ACB had to set up a separate Banking Division to investigate these cases. Here is an example of the famous phrase “make hay when the sun shines”. A couple of years back, a housing loan of Rs 8 crore was sanctioned in favor of a women borrower by one of the banks in J&K for the purchase of a residential house stated to be valued over Rs10 crore. The borrower had to repay the loan in 8 years with a monthly installment of Rs 7.65 lakh, meaning thereby that double the amount was to be paid to the bank by the said borrower. This is how all banks make a profit and run their business. However, the said housing loan shortly turned NPA. To date, the borrower had repaid just Rs 1.20 crore and the outstanding balance including the unapplied interest has crossed Rs10 crore. Generally, housing loans do not turn NPA as prudent banker take due diligence in sanctioning housing loans, by ensuring repayments from part of their regular incomes and by further securing their exposure through personal guarantees and proper primary and collateral securities against the asset/loans. The catch is: the lady borrower happens to be a sister of the ex-chief minister and when this loan was sanctioned, the said Chief Minister was holding the office! I am sure neither Governor N.N Vohra knew it nor his successor Satyapal Malik had any fair idea of it.
Can we imagine the housing loan of a salaried employee becoming NPA and the concerned branch resorting to cosmetic measures to take the possession of the asset? The irony is that the salaried class struggles to make ends meet and curtails hundreds of other expenses to meet EMIs of housing loans of a few lakhs. But here in J&K, big loans are taken by the élite for not repaying it.
Recently, a special CBI court in Mumbai convicted and sentenced a 59-year-old women borrower and a few bank employees to five years’ rigorous imprisonment for cheating SBI for diverting and not using the credit facility of Rs 90 lakh for the purpose for which it was sought. The point is, in other states, one can go to jail for a few lakhs of loan default or diversion but here, élite can easily take a loan of hundreds of crores and get away by joining a political party in power or likely to come in power.
When we have rules and accountability for one set of people and a free hand to the bureaucratic-business-political élite, such blatant loot of public exchequer will continue in the future. The LG Government has to make sure the basic tenet of rule of law: “Be you ever so high, the law is above you.” in letter and spirit if the Government is really serious in cleaning up the mess. Transparency and ruthless accountability across the board is the only option available with the government and the accountability must start from the top, I repeat from the top. There are hundreds of untold stories of blatant corruption in J&K involving the high and mighty. I have told one. Let others also muster the courage to write.
(The writer is a freelancer)