Atanu Dey On India's Development

Solution to India’s Greatest Failure

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In a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal titled “India’ Greatest Failure,” Paul Beckett writes about T.S.R. Subramanian who retired as India’s most senior civil servant in 1998. Beckett quotes from TSR’s book, “GovernMint in India” — “Since no part of the Establishment has an interest in punishing corruption, trying for a more sweeping solution quickly leads into the realm of blind hope.”

Could not agree more with Mr TSR Subramanian, of course. He appears to be a sensible guy. Beckett writes,

He does offer a few practical suggestions: Suspend politicians facing criminal charges, as civil servants are suspended pending trial. Establish a fast-track court just for government officials so that cases are resolved expeditiously. Persuade judges to make an example of a few political wrongdoers as a public flogging for the rest. [Emphasis added.]

Public flogging as a deterrent, eh? How quaint. Now where have I read that before? Ah yes, over here! In October 2005, in a post titled “The Ownership Society” I wrote:

Imagine for a moment the following rules. The CEO of the state electricity board is given the ownership of that entity. The job description: “provide power now and build capacity so that there is sufficient capacity for the next 5 years” (assuming that it takes 5 years to build capacity.) If the CEO fails to do that, the entire salary paid to the CEO will have to be repaid and the person—who may have left the job by the time the shortfall is detected—will be publicly flogged in the town square.

Now this rule should be made fully clear to the prospective candidates and anyone who takes up the job must know the consequences of failure. It is because people know up front that they are shielded from the consequences of their failures that they fail in the first place.

I really don’t care whether the power I use in Pune is provided by a public firm or a private firm. As long as I know that if I suffer, those who are responsible for my suffering also suffer, I would be quite content. More importantly, I believe that if the penalties are made sufficiently appropriate, these failures will not happen very frequently.

I don’t really care if there is a Ministry for Power in India or not. What I would care about is that if there is one, the man or woman who wants to have the power and the glory of being the minister, would also be flogged publicly for any problems that arise as a result of their tenure.

I don’t really care whether the railways are run by the government or not. But if there is a train accident, the rule should be that the railway minister will be flogged publicly and given as many lashes as there are deaths due to that accident.

Public flogging of public officials is the answer to the problem of public officials not taking their charges seriously. Not just corporations. Take politicians. Any election promises they make about how they will change the economy must be taken seriously. And then if they fail to deliver, hold their feet to the fire. Candidate A claims that he will make something happen, then as elected leader A, he becomes the owner of that something. If he does not deliver—you guessed it—public flogging.

Want to be the prime minister of India? No problem. Take ownership of the country and set goals that you say you will achieve. If the goals are not achieved as promised by you, public flogging over an extended period of time. What this will do is to bring the right sort of people into public life. People who know what they are capable of doing and who will not mess with the fate of millions knowing that their behinds —literally— will be on the line.

Flogging is a simple enough measure to implement. It does not require high tech equipment. What it does require is a judiciary that can impose the punishment and carry it out.

Corruption in an organization? Here is my solution which will fix it pretty fast. Suppose Mr A has been involved in corruption. Don’t just flog Mr A, get his boss (Mr B) and his boss’s boss (Mr C) and flog them as well. Why so? Because Mr C will be extra vigilant and keep on Mr B’s case and tell him to be on the lookout that no one under him is into corruption.

What this multi-level flogging does is this. It makes managers liable for corruption in institutions that they control. That is, it gives the managers ownership of the organization they control. Irrespective of how deep the organization is, if a person at a certain level is corrupt, include the two higher levels and flog those two individuals as well.

You may think that I am not really serious. But I am. I am dead serious about this. You want to make India the least corrupt economy on earth, get serious about dealing with the problem for just a few years. After a few dozen high level officials have been publicly flogged, corruption will be a thing of the past which children will read about in their history books.

You may say that instead of flogging, why not just impose a fine on them. That would not hit where it hurts. Merely fining someone who has lots of money is not pain enough. The penalty has to have a sting. Here is what I mean. In Finland, the penalty for a moving traffic violation such as speeding is monetary but it is indexed on the income of the person. A dotcom millionaire was fined $93,000 for speeding.

So flogging should do very well in India. Those in high positions value their pride. They depend on their image. If they penalty is public flogging, they would cease and desist from doing what exacts that penalty.

Public flogging of public officials is a proposal which can transform Indian society more than all this talk about empowering the citizens that we are getting dizzy from reading in the newspapers. Everyone and his brother is advancing all sorts of wooly ideas about how to transform India. Here is an idea that will not see the light of the day of course, but it has the real power to transform.

I once again argued for public flogging in Mar 2006 in a piece titled “Terrorism, the way out” and wrote,

Dr Manmohan Singh and the leader of the Government of India, Ms Sonia Gandhi, would never feel the pain of terrorism. A thousand – or even a million – Indians could perish at the hands of terrorists without having the least effect on those leaders. At most their security will be strengthened a bit more, more public funds will be spent on getting them more black commandoes as bodyguards, more road and air traffic disrupted when they travel, more citizens will be inconvenienced to protect the leaders from terrorists. The leaders will never be inconvenienced to protect the people, however.

Is there a way out? An economist would respond, “Yes, get the incentives right.” My proposal is to create the mechanism which would transmit the pain of terrorism to the leaders. In a sense, I advance the creation of a nervous system that carries the pain signals to the brain. The incentive mechanism I propose involves public flogging but is not limited to that.

After every terrorist attack, the Prime Minister, the head of the government (if not the same as the PM), the Home Minister (who is in charge of security), the police chief in whose jurisdiction the incident occurs, and the Defense Minister should be publicly flogged, with the number of lashes equal to the number of deaths, within two weeks of the incident. So for the Varanasi terrorist attack, Dr Singh, Ms Sonia Gandhi and the others listed above (I don’t know their identities) should be flogged by 21st of March in the courtyard of the Rastrapati Bhavan.

Aside from the public flogging, the other measure would be to fine them 1 percent of their wealth for every 100 deaths. This means, after 10,000 deaths under their watch, they will have all their wealth confiscated.

What would this accomplish? Firstly, it would put the fear of the lash into them. They would have the incentive to actually reduce the chances of terrorists succeeding. For instance, right now they would for political reasons molly-coddle Islamic preachers sermonizing the slaughter of infidels. Or they may be considering increasing the number of buses and trains between India and Pakistan. Or they may be advocating more porous borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh. When they know that these measures will increase the incidence of fatal terrorists attacks, they will not be so careless with the lives the citizens.

Second, the fines will help with the compensation to the families of the victims of terror attacks. Indian leaders have enormous wealth – from foreign gun deals, from cattle feed, from handing out licenses and permits, and from dipping extremely sticky fingers into the public till. Some of that wealth could be given back to the people.

Insult to their dignity and their behinds combined with injury to their pockets will work wonders.

Now let’s be realistic. Public flogging of the criminals occupying the highest levels of the government will happen a little after hell freezes over or a certain blue-turbaned man grows a spine, whichever comes later. Criminals don’t have an incentive to create incentives that deter criminals. We do have criminals in government, don’t we? A public watchdog organization reports that the new parliament of 543 members will have 143 MPs who have criminal cases pending against them. Of these, 71 have serious criminal charges such as murder. Being charged is not the same as being guilty, of course. But guilt can be established pretty efficiently and quickly, if the system was designed properly. But why on earth would criminals be interested in putting that system in place which would condemn them?

Let’s repeat what TSR wrote (quoted right at the top), “Since no part of the Establishment has an interest in punishing corruption, trying for a more sweeping solution quickly leads into the realm of blind hope.”

Deva, deva!

  • Gaurav

    Wonderful ! Initially I thought you were out of your mind. It seemed so impractical but once I read the whole article – this seems to be the best way ! I salute you truly. Thanks