The fight against corruption was tweaked this week.

The health secretary, Dasho Dr. Gado Tshering, sprang a surprise by submitting a voluntary resignation. The issue warrants a deeper scrutiny because it is the first time that a senior level bureaucrat has opted to resign on moral grounds taking responsibility for corruption despite not being explicitly involved in the case. The secretary has thus set a new trend. But we don’t really know whether this move will become a trendsetter.

So far, our fight against corruption has been too protracted. Despite the government voicing it as a top priority, it has not translated into strong action. The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) has voiced out its dissatisfaction over it in several forums. The latest incident was over the newly enacted Anti-Corruption Act where the ACC seemed to be fighting a lone battle. The lawmakers paid no attention to the concerns raised by the ACC and it was a real life exhibition of the poor commitment to fight corruption.

The ACC chief, Dasho Neten Zangmo, has said the new Act compromises ACC’s independence and labeled it as “disappointing” after the parliament reduced various proposed sentencing terms for corruption. This act of the parliament made corruption a lesser evil. For example, bribery was initially proposed to be a  third degree felony that warrants 5 to 9 years in prison; and embezzlement and the abuse of authority were both proposed to be a fourth degree felonies (3 to 5 years in prison). All three felony degrees (a felony case is not bail-able) were reduced to misdemeanor cases which are bail-able and warrants less than three years in prison.

Thus, we may not be mistaken to say that biggest ingredient necessary to fight corruption – the political will – is missing in Bhutan. The fight against corruption has been used only as a beautiful linguistic décor to win people’s hearts during political campaign speeches of our political leaders. The verbal commitments have not been given life and lay contoured just in words written down in paper reserved to be given voice in front of crowds of people.

The political will to fight corruption doesn’t comprise only of the will of the political leaders. It has to be complemented with proper legislative cushions. But while our leaders have repeatedly reiterated their commitment to root out corruption coining the unassailable slogan of “zero tolerance to corruption,” there is also a parallel restrain to have proper legislation.

For example, the information ministry has said in the past that it is too early for the country to have the Right to Information Act.

Moreover, the only way to adopt a zero tolerance policy to corruption is to give the ACC the legal teeth to bite. Currently, we have seen people prosecuted for corruption by the ACC walk openly in the society. Some have been backed up by their respective agencies making a mockery of the ACC probe. Some have taken the constitutional body to court. The ACC has indeed been reduced to a toothless tiger. And it certainly does not signal the presence of a political will to root out corruption.

Under such circumstances, the decision of the health secretary to take responsibility of the health procurement scam is certainly a positive sign. It is a trend that has to take root. Without such an accountability protocol, fighting corruption will never yield results.

In other countries, bosses are accountable not only for corruption but also failures and oversights that occur under their surveillance irrespective of whether they are involved or not.

Two weeks ago, the Karnataka Chief Minister in India had to resign following pressure from his political party because he was held accountable for the state losing Rs 160bn in revenue due to a large scale illegal mining. Last year, the Indian telecom Minister, A Raja had to resign after the 2G spectrum scam was exposed. Similarly, after the financial crisis of 2008, the heads of almost all the affected international financial institutions had to give up their jobs. This is a global trend. The boss has to be accountable. But sadly, Bhutan has managed to duck this global trend so far.

Back home, until last week, not a single boss had ever taken moral responsibility over any institutional failure that occurred under them be it in the government or any other institution.

In the Bhutan lottery case, which cost Bhutan more revenue than it would ever generate from all its future hydropower projects combined together, the government has shown a surprising nonchalant attitude and tried all means to cover up the issue. The attitude of the government on Bhutan’s biggest corruption case ever (the lottery issue) stands testimony to the work that has to be done. And it has to begin with a strong political will and it has to begin with our political leaders. Accountability cannot be just a campaign garb to wear. It has to translate into action.

Nb: The article was published as an editorial in Business Bhutan on August 13, 2011

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