India Should Look to Hong Kong's Example in Its Fight Against Corruption

02/02/2012 12:09 pm ET | Updated Apr 03, 2012

The legislative showdown currently underway in the Indian Parliament over the Lokpal bill -- intended to put some boundaries around India's legendary corruption -- is unfortunately not unusual. Political gridlock has gripped nearly every potential significant reform since Prime Minister Singh's reelection in 2009. It is a shame that the bill was introduced in an already politically charged atmosphere, where critical issues deserving immediate action lay at the mercy of politicians who treat law-making simply as a game of compromises for political and economic spoils. The outcome of the Lokpal bill will demonstrate whether Indian politicians are capable of reform that encroaches on their personal interests.

Some political analysts have laid part of the blame for the absence of more meaningful progress at Anna Hazare's refusal to make concessions, alleging an inflated ego and his political ambitions for tainting the anti-corruption movement. The propensity to finger point among all the parties is certainly not constructive, which makes one wonder how genuine any of their positions truly are. Soutik Biswas, a BBC correspondent from Delhi, recently said of this:

On the street, people are asking thorny questions to which the politicians, both ruling and in the opposition, have no answers. What was the problem in voting for a less than perfect bill and make a beginning in combating graft? True, laws alone don't reform societies, but they do allow building strong, independent institutions, which India sorely lacks.

Will the Lokpal bill simply add yet another bureaucratic layer to India's sclerotic institutional and criminal processes? Even though the passage of the bill could be India's best first step towards genuine reform, it is becoming more apparent that any end result will likely be a product of unprincipled compromises, without achieving any meaningful change to the status quo. If this is its fate, will its symbolism, at the very least, take on a redemptive force in Indian society today, so as to treat the measure at least as a step in the right direction? This would be depressing, given the stakes at hand, and the overwhelming support of the Indian people for the initiative. But given Indian parliamentary dynamics, the already watered-down bill will likely be subjected to even further amendment and political gridlock.

India's Parliament should at least ensure that the proposed ombudsman will wield concrete independent powers -- beyond nominal authority. In fashioning legislation and a structure aimed at eliminating widespread corruption, India should look to the experience of Hong Kong and its Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). Many countries have turned to this model in their own anti-corruption efforts -- some more successfully than others. The ICAC was established in 1974 at a time when corruption was especially rife in Hong Kong. Like India today, corruption was considered to be a way of life. Law enforcement agencies were associated with criminal syndicates and all types of organized crime, including illegal gambling, smuggling, and drugs. When the ICAC was first established, people in Hong Kong considered its aims to be out of reach, if not impossible to meet. However, in just three years the ICAC cracked down on all major corruption syndicates in the government and prosecuted 247 government officials, including 143 police officers.

Mr. Tony Kwok Man-Wai, a former Deputy Commissioner and Head of Operations of the ICAC, points to the following successes of the commission since its inception:

  • Eradicating all overt types of corruption in the Government. Corruption now exists as a highly secretive crime, and often involves only satisfied parties.
  • Among the first in the world to effectively enforce private sector corruption.
  • Ensuring that Hong Kong had clean elections.
  • Changing the public's attitude to no longer tolerating corruption as a way of life, supporting the fight against corruption, and becoming not only willing to report corruption, but being prepared to identify themselves in the reports.

The ICAC adopted a three-pronged approach to fighting corruption: deterrence, prevention (both through law enforcement), and community education. Furthermore, Hong Kong has comprehensive legislation in place to deal with corruption, and the ICAC has existed as a constitutionally sanctioned body since Hong Kong was formally ceded by Britain to China. The agency is empowered to investigate all crimes connected with corruption in both the public and private sectors. The ICAC devotes a significant amount of resources to its Operations Department, since "any successful fight against corruption must start with effective enforcement on major targets, so as to demonstrate to the public the government's determination to fight corruption at all costs, as well as to demonstrate the effectiveness of the anti-corruption agencies."

India's legislators should draw valuable lessons from the ICAC's success in institutionalizing the fight against corruption. Hazare's Lokpal bill envisioned such an agency, but given the parliament's continuing dilution of the potential powers of the ombudsman, this seems improbable -- at least at the present time. While there is no doubt that India faces its own unique challenges, Hong Kong's experience showcases the ingredients for meaningful change: sufficient political will, adequate resources, a clear platform, an efficient strategy, and a strong and independent anti-corruption agency. It would be nice to imagine that India can achieve what Hong Kong did almost 40 years ago -- but given the reality of India's political process and the self-interest of its politicians, the parliament seems intent on proceeding down a path of self-destruction.

*Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk management consultancy based in Connecticut (USA), Director of Global Strategy with the PRS Group, and author of the forthcoming book Managing Country Risk (March 2012). Edsel Tupaz is founder and managing partner of Tupaz and Associates, and a professor of international and comparative law, based in Manila. The authors thank Joan Martinez for her comments.

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