In September 1998, N. Vittal was brought out of retirement to head India's Central Vigilance Commission to root out corruption at the highest levels. A former bureaucrat himself--responsible for the telecoms revolution in India in the 1980s--Vittal launched a daring and unprecedented campaign to expose graft: by posting the names of suspect civil servants and other government officers on the Internet. Not everyone is happy. More than 200 names have been posted on the commission's website, , so far: another 1,800 are awaiting their public outing. TIME New Delhi correspondent Meenakshi Ganguly spoke with the crusader on February 29. The online only interview:
What is the mandate of the Central Vigilance Commission?
The mandate of the Central Vigilance Commission is spelt out in the notification of the government of India, Department of Personnel. We not only look at individual cases that are referred to us but also the systems and I try to see what can be done to prevent corruption flourishing. For example, last year I got 9,200 files referred to me. I got 8,400 applications directly addressed to me. Normally what happens in any vigilance matter is that the departments refer the cases to me. Then we see, based on the records, whether it is a serious case where we can go to a court of law and file a prosecution. In a court of law the proof required is very high: it should be beyond reasonable doubt under the Evidence Act. In a departmental inquiry, the proof required is not 'beyond reasonable doubt' but what is called 'preponderance of probability.' So the number of cases for prosecution before the courts will always be much less than the number of cases under departmental inquiry. What happens after a departmental inquiry?
A departmental inquiry can result in two things: dismissal, as a major penalty, or censure for something minor. We also advise what should be done. Although I may be advising, it is the departmental disciplinary authorities that take the action. Once it goes to prosecution, the courts will take their time. But when it comes to departmental action, I have issued an order that an inquiry must be completed within six months, because I have discovered that there are two factors that promote corruption: delay and secrecy.
Why had no one heard of the Central Vigilance Commission before you took charge?
When I took over in September 1988 I inherited 400 files. Last week, I was out for four days and when I came back, there were 250 files. So from a flow of 100 files per week, we are now talking about 60 files a day. It is continuously increasing. It definitely shows that there is increasing awareness that the CVC exists.
The CVC was also given more power recently by the Supreme Court, wasn't it?
Oh yes. The CVC was started in 1964. At the time it was not a statutory body. But in 1997 there was the hawala (foreign exchange fraud) case. The Supreme Court directed that the CVC should be an executive body and so in 1998 the government issued an ordinance. I would invite attention to this because there is this big debate going on about the statutory power of the CVC. It makes me wonder whether the people of this country want to check corruption or whether they want to check the CVC.
How many names have you put up on the Internet?
About 200 or so. More will come. I am putting names on from 1990 onwards. The total number is about 2,000.
Why did you choose to put their names on the Internet?
The media has been always needling us, asking what is being done about the senior corrupt people. I have been telling a slokha (a Sanskrit couplet): 'If you want to give God any offering, non vegetarian gods have to be given animals. Which will you give? Can you give a horse? No. A tiger? No. An elephant? No. So you can only give a goat. So I used to say about my job. Secretary? No. Chairman? No. Minister? Definitely not. Only the LDC-- the lower division clerk-- can be caught. The media was always needling us about the top people so we thought all right, we must take action The fact is we are now taking that action. So why not publicize it?
Is it not defamatory?
In a criminal case the names of the accused are not kept secret. They are innocent till proved guilty but everybody knows that they are accused. In a departmental action, the accused is called a 'charged officer.' Until the charge is proved they are innocent. So if in a prosecution case, which is a much more serious case, the name is not kept secret why should we observe secrecy. There is no defamation involved. And the positive benefit of this is that I think, probably for the first time in the world, the Internet is being used to fight corruption. The public has welcomed it. It has given a signal that action is being taken against senior people. And it is being perceived as a measure that will deter people who are on this side of the line from crossing over. And there have been two other benefits. Some of these people are occupying sensitive posts. It also ensures that these people are weeded out. That is good for greater transparency and better governance. Another thing. Despite documents being provided to the CVC, the department in some cases did not move on the matter or, worse, there was an attempt at suppressing or protecting the corrupt. Now this has gone.
You speak of deterrence. Is public embarrassment still a deterrent?
Yes it is. One officer accused of corruption came in just this morning. He was literally weeping saying: 'Sir, my children are asking why my picture is there.' It is affecting them. After all, ultimately the level of corruption depends on three factors. The first is your individual set of values. The second is social norms. And the third is the system. Now I am basically concerned about the system. I mean, 10% of people will be honest whatever you do. Another 10% will be dishonest whatever you do. But then the bell curve operates and 80% depends on the system. If the system encourages corruption, there will be corruption.
But the problem is that the system allows corruption to flourish because it is such a burden to get it to work.
That is why I have been pushing all along to change the system. I have a simple three-point plan to check corruption. I can claim to have the most integrated and comprehensive thinking on the corruption issue in this country today. A lot of people write about corruption but they give very theoretical solutions, like everybody should be honest. Or they offer drastic solutions like everybody should be sent to jail. But our prime minister should be given full credit. He said use zero tolerance of corruption. I have a three-point plan to bring zero corruption. Firstly, simplify the rules and procedures so that scope for corruption is reduced. Secondly, empower the public through transparency. My Internet site is part of that process. Thirdly, hand down effective punishment. I am moving on a basic idea. It is the right of every citizen of India to have a corruption-free service in any public office. Why? The public servant is paid out of your money--taxpayers money. He is put there to do a certain chore. I want to bring a change in the government-citizen relationship. The government is not the ruler and the citizen the ruled. The government is a service provider and the citizen is a consumer of services. To make this happen, I have several ideas. We must mobilize the youth in this country. But I also get negative signals. Our youth are so much materialistic, they consider honesty to be an archaic value. If this is case, then there is no hope for this country. But I think there is still some persons who are still idealistic.
How many officers have actually been punished?
I don't have those statistics.
Have any of them ever threatened you or tried to bribe you?
No. Normally in the first seven or eight years of government, you build up an image. Your character is your career. Once people know your image, they behave accordingly.
But it is said that every person has a price?
Then I have to say that I am priceless.