Can an ombudsman remove all evil?

Sunday, 22 December 2013 - 1:13pm IST | Place: Ahmedabad | Agency: DNA

Some people, particularly having no exposure to the complexities and intricacies of public administration and governance, are so critical of governments that they make ridiculously simplistic assumptions and claim that if things are done their way, they can bring about a complete turnaround. Some of them claim that if given a chance to enact a law to create an ombudsman, they can eliminate corruption altogether. Some claim they can bring down the cost of electricity by half simply by removing corruption and mismanagement.

While one can laugh at such oversimplification of a sector as complex as electricity, what is worrying is that such ridiculous assertions can also cause disaffection and distrust among the masses towards those who are in charge of such activity, political or otherwise. Most of Gujarat’s public sector electricity generation plants are old and fully depreciated. Yet, today the pooled average cost of generate one unit of power in these plants is around Rs3.40. One has to add another one-and-half rupee to it before it can be made available to the user at his place as one has to add the transmission and distribution expenses. States like Gujarat pay nearly Rs1,700 per ton for Indian coal, while an amount higher than this goes towards rail freight charges as coal has to be hauled long distance from the coal mines to faraway states like Gujarat. Can anyone do anything about such factors?

Today, in almost all states, a statutory regulatory authority is in place to decide power rates to the electricity generation, transmission and distribution company, whether it’s a public or private sector. Normally, the regulatory authority allows an Internal Rate of Return (IRR) of nearly 14 per cent. Else, how and why should such entities enter into any commercial activity? While no one denies that there is still a scope for reforms and efficiency gain by cutting down on mismanagement or minimise losses, it is simply ridiculous to assert that one can reduce the cost of power by more than half by just having pious intentions and claims.   

Another such outlandish, utterly simplistic and almost like playing-to-the-gallery claim is the demand for creation of an all-powerful ombudsman, unaccountable to the legislature, the executive or the judiciary, which would usher in a ‘Ram Rajya’, and bring in a system without any corruption.

Corruption in India and many such countries again is very complex and linked to many such ills in our system. Our electoral system which requires huge amount of money, often black, to get a candidate elected, the scope for discretion and subjectiveness in our decision-making process, poor enforcement, our VIP culture and social character are some of the factors which make corruption so rampant in our system. Unless we decide to take bold steps to change the factors which allow corruption, how can a single institution like a Lokpal, no matter how efficient and well-intentioned, be able to eliminate corruption?

In the past, we have enacted many such central and state-specific anti-graft laws and created many such anti-graft authorities like the Vigilance Commission, anti-corruption bureaus, CBI, etc.

These have not helped us in our goal to reduce graft at all because we are not willing to deal with the forces and factors that encourage the bribe giver and the receiver to do so without fear or shame. Oversimplifying complex issues is mere populism and discourages the honest and well-intentioned from taking any action and will bring everything to a standstill.

The author is municipal commissioner of Ahmedabad

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