August 22, 2002


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The Rediff Interview/N Vittal

'The fight against corruption is a long drawn one'

At the end of a four year term, Chief Vigilance Commissioner N Vittal will remit office on September 2. Looking back at his tenure, he says his biggest achievement was enabling the commission attain greater visibility, while his greatest regret was his inability to punish corrupt IAS officers.

In an exclusive interview to Onkar Singh, Vittal said the fight against corruption was a long drawn one and complimented the Government of India for selecting P Shankar as his successor.

How do you look back at your career? Are you satisfied with what you have achieved?

I am indeed satisfied with what I have achieved though a lot remains to be achieved yet. The fight against corruption is going to be a long drawn one. Therefore, I cannot say what I have done is something great.

What gives me satisfaction is that the Chief Vigilance Commission has got some visibility, and some credibility as well. When I came here the number of complaints received by the commission was 2,200. The figure has now gone up to 17,000.

The general impression amongst the people was that here is an organisation where they could lodge a complaint and hope that something would be done against corrupt officials. I am happy to tell you that in 98 per cent cases the departments have taken action against corrupt officials. What could not be implemented has been included in our annual report to Parliament.

Our directives in case of accepting the lowest bids from bidders in cases involving tenders has been implemented. This is being appreciated both by the private sector and the honest people within the government. Twenty four out of 27 banks have been computerised.

Don't you think you have set up high standards for your successors to emulate?

I am very happy and I congratulate the Government of India for selecting the best officers to replace the present team. Mr P Shankar, Mr Janaki Ballabh and Mr Dorab are persons of impeccable integrity. They are excellent in work and character. In fact Dr Shankar would do much better as chief vigilance commissioner than myself.

Did the government consult you before naming your successor?

No, there is no practice of consulting the outgoing chief vigilance commissioner. The committee comprising Prime Minister A B Vajpayee, Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani and leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha Mrs Sonia Gandhi selected the new team.

What are the things you have not been able to achieve?

The goals I have not been able to achieve relate to either legislative action or policy changes. Legislative action takes a long time under the present scheme of things. Take the example of a managing director of Air-India who was suspended following a CBI inquiry against him. A few days before his retirement he was suspended and he assumed charge just a day or two before he was due for retirement.

B G Deshmukh, the former Cabinet secretary, wrote to me and asked how can we ensure that honest people are not harassed. I took up the matter with the government and suggested that since the Central Vigilance Commission deals with such matters, it should be consulted before suspending a top ranking officer and we offered to take only three working days to revert back to the concerned deparments. If the matter is urgent and needs immediate suspension of the concerned officer even then after suspending him the government should refer the matter to the CVC and we would take three working days to give our recommendation which should be binding on the department. This has not been accepted by the government on the ground that the disciplinary action has to be taken by the concerned departments.

The CVC is an advisory body but in more than 90 per cent cases this advice is implemented. The basic idea is to protect honest people from harassment. This is the biggest challenge before the CVC because many times they could become victims of some other conspiracies. One step that has had a long reaching impact on harassment of honest officials was to put a ban on anonymous petitions. This has brought to an end the culture of blackmail in government departments.

The CVC bill has not been passed so far. Does it mean that the CVC would be less powerful?

On the contrary till the time the CVC bill is passed the Central Vigilance Commission would remain powerful. That may seem surprising but it is a fact because right now the CVC draws its powers from the order of the Supreme Court of India in the Vineet Narain case.

Under Article 141 of the Constitution till the new bill is passed the judgment of the court would have the force of the law. In the absence of the single directive from the government the CBI is able to go after top officials of the government. The Central Vigilance Commission is right now exercising supervision over the vigilance machinery of the government.

This power of the CVC is sought to be reduced under the new bill. Under the new bill the government says the CVC should not give any directive that is contradictive to the government's policies. The policy is what the government says it is. Our directive that the lowest bidder should get the purchase order in case of purchase and procurements is seen by some as an interference in the government's policies. We give directives with the sole idea of checking corruption. In the revised bill the CVC's authority is sought to be reduced.

Why not recover the money made by a corrupt public servant first before he is punished for his deeds?

On my suggestion the Law Commission drafted a law called Corrupt Public Servant Forfeiture of Property Act. This is pending with the government. Under this act the government could recover the money from the public servant and attach his properties. Another law has been drafted called the Disclosure Act that would protect whistle blowers -- people who expose corruption in government departments.

Another bill that needs to be passed is how to tackle the money laundering bill. Our effort should be how to tighten customs, excise, income tax and sales tax. Loopholes in these acts leads to creation of black money in the country. So long as these are not covered any bill passed would continue to be a toothless bill. We should have an act to tackle benami properties. I personally feel that those who are earning below Rs 5 lakh a year should not be covered under income tax and after Rs 5 lakh income there should be a flat rate of 20 per cent. Retired persons who live on meagre pension should not be forced to file income tax returns. This would ease the burden of the income tax department and they would be able to work more effectively. This would also bring down the level of corruption.

Despite your efforts senior IAS officers who indulge in corruption have not been punished. Do you admit that?

Yes, this is true.

After the defence expose, alleged that it was being hounded by the government for exposing corruption.

Lord Budha says that when a finger points to the moon you should look at the moon and not the finger. In the case of it was pointing a finger towards corruption in society rather than focussing on I had received complaints on this issue and wrote to the Enforcement Directorate but so far I have not got any response from them.

You had written a letter to the chief ministers of various states after the Punjab government took action against then Punjab Public Service Commission Chairman Ravinderpal Singh Sidhu and booked him under the Prevention of Corruption Act. Did you get any response?

I got letters from at least six chief ministers. But surprisingly the chief minister of Punjab Captain Amarinder Singh did not respond to my letter at all.

Design: Dominic Xavier

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