Bihar: India’s ‘most backward’ state first off the blocks in beating corruption

Bihar — long known as India's "most backward" state — is winning the war against corruption, reports Sudip Mazumdar for Foreign Policy.

As I wrote for Newsweek and GlobalPost in 2010, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has brought the state back from the brink of failure by ending notorious law and order problems that were once so bad nobody came out after dark, even in the capital city of Patna. He's presided over a massive boost in state spending. And he's made sure a greater portion of those funds actually go where they're intended by ending the so-called "transfer industry" that sold bureaucratic posts to the highest bidder — enshrining corruption — and promoting competent bureaucrats instead.

Now my old Newsweek buddy, Sudip, provides an interesting update on Kumar's next battle.  If establishing basic law and order was the goal of Kumar's first term — during which he put some 39,000 crooks behind bars, compared with an average of less than 10,000 in previous decades — the target this time is corruption in the bureaucracy.  As state spending has increased and the local economy has begun rolling, now, incidentally, at a faster clip than any other state in India, it's an issue that has grown in importance.  And Kumar is still "doing the needful," as bureaucrats here like to say.

Here's Sudip's take on how it's working:

[Kumar] started by issuing a public declaration of his own modest property and demanded that all his cabinet colleagues do the same. He brushed aside murmurs of protest and recently extended the diktat further to encompass nearly half a million civil servants and police. Now both citizens and tax officials can easily keep an eye on who is getting richer.

To promote transparency, all complaints of bribery will soon be uploaded to YouTube, making for a palpable shaming effect. The government is also offering whistle-blowers a cash reward of nearly $10,000 if any such tip-offs result in conviction of a corrupt official.

Next, Kumar enacted a law that could be more important than the much talked about ombudsman (or Lokpal) bill favored by Anna Hazare;s anti-corruption protest movement.

Last year Kumar upped the ante by enacting a law that empowers the Bihar government to confiscate any ill-gotten property, pending trial, and turn it into a school or health clinic. If the accused wins the case, the property is returned (plus interest). "The basic objective … is to instill a sense of fear in the minds of corrupt public servants," wrote Kumar on his blog. "When they see that their property earned through corrupt practices is ultimately seized by the government, they will realise the futility of amassing wealth."

Already about 20 officials, including a former state police chief, have been caught in the dragnet. Three have seen their property confiscated, sending a powerful deterrent message to potential bribe-takers around the state.

With another law, the Right to Public Services Act, he imposed deadlines on some 50 government services and established financial penalties for failing to meet them, effectively ending the practice of intentionally delaying delivery and then demanding a bribe to perform. 

And finally, like several other Indian states that have acted faster than the central government, Kumar passed his own ombudsman law. 

A good candidate for India's next prime minister? One would think so, but Kumar hails from a small, regional power without the clout to fight against the Congress or Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The only way he could win the post would be if the BJP won a greater number of seats in parliament than the Congress, and then needed to cobble together a coalition to form the government. 

And even though India will no doubt be ruled by coalitions for the foreseeable future, unfortunately nobody in the BJP would be willing to project Kumar as their coalition's PM candidate BEFORE the polls — a move that would no doubt make a victory much more likely.

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