Transparency, the nagging irritant, pivotal for democracy
Posted on July 9th, 2011

By Philip Fernando

Transparency in a democracy invokes the people’s right to see and know how public business gets transacted in their name. None dare dent that sacrosanct public mould even though the inclination to dismiss it as a nagging irritant surfaces with recurring frequency in many parts of the world.  That said, transparency faces periodical setbacks beyond the “pesky feel” politicians have for the subject due to underlying causes that deserve wider review as examined below. The subject dominates three of the major economies of the world””‚USA, China and India””‚each with their distinct local flavor.
The post-9/11 administration in the US saw transparency badly violated with cases of torture, surveillance of private communications, and restrictions on the writ of habeas corpus exposed. These cases undermined the fundamental values of individual dignity, personal privacy and due process. The entrenched Bill of Rights and Freedom of Information Act were side-stepped.
Closer home in India, the malfeasance alleged in the arrangement of the Commonwealth Games as well as issues regarding land and business deals occupied centre stage. Discretionary powers used when executing laws and regulations became fertile grounds for concealment and misuse of authority.
Scope of corruption
The Indian experience proved that the simple matter of starting a business contained built-in mechanisms aiding concealment. Applicants were at the mercy of agencies dispensing approvals for land use, water and electricity, environmental clearance, labour laws – all under the broad cover of protecting legitimate social objectives like minimum working conditions, pollution etc. The scope for corruption multiplied.
China’s galloping growth rates boosted the market value of scarce public resources “”…” land, oil and gas; mineral resources; the telecommunication spectrum and a raison d’etre for corruption emerged. Making a fast buck from favoured allocation had arrived despite severest strictures robustly enforced.
Oddly, the sound and fury usually evident in instances of shady official conduct did not always get the attention it deserved. The story of how the media were reluctant to report the developing story of a tainted milk scandal causing serious health problems until the end of the 2008 Olympic Games “”…” China’s moment of international glory – raised many eyebrows. The culprits were dealt with harshly later on.
Similar justification for brushing aside the people’s right to know in the post-9/11 era more often received tacit approval among some in the US. Both in China and USA the tendency to give a pass to concealment signified a lowering of ethical standards.
In the final analysis, it is gratifying to know that tolerance of non-transparency in any given country did not go unchallenged. Indian legislators were debating a new law called the Lokpal Bill calling for a “strong, effective and quick institutional arrangement for tackling corruption in high places,” as we write.
Entrenched bureaucracy
Whether the entrenched bureaucracy showed tacit complicity when concealment rose to unacceptable levels and how that could be tackled seems germane to the discussion here. Instances of Indian journalists resisting the push for censorship were positive signs.
Their battle was to overcome the administrative jungle of multiple veto powers “”…” a legacy from colonial times””‚that made concealment and corruption go hand in hand.
China rewards and promotes those who deliver in a systematic way. But the performance driven culture made some bureaucrats take unethical short cuts despite risking severe penalties.
Similarly, rosy economic forecasts from bureaucrats made both governments and bureacrats themselves look better””‚something you could find anywhere on the globe.

Most administrations pick their officials on their records, performance and drive. In India, a short but successful posting in a distant and harsh outpost earned handy reputations helping upward career mobility in the highly competitive civil service. Squeezing the most out of a posting has worked well for rising bureaucrats – often with questionable methods employed “”…” with transparency among the virtues that went out of the window.
Expensive campaiging process
Finally, electoral processes at all levels have become more expensive in terms of advertising costs, petrol for transport and cash for the large numbers of vote-mobilizing youth and campaign staff – particularly in Indian constituencies with over a million voters in case the of parliamentary seats. USA beat all records for campaign expenses””‚estimated at a billion each by both winner and loser in the 2008 presidential race.

The first thing that would go in such a situation is openness. Without public funding of elections made available to candidates, raising money from all kinds of private sources, often through questionable means, has become inevitable. There is little doubt that there is a price attached to campaign funding with those putting up the cash looking for favors that are too often granted by those able to do so.

The right to know should be guaranteed, debated and kept under constant review. The potential for frivolous requests for information flooding the system has to be avoided with guidelines on how information can be solicited and obtained.

2 Responses to “Transparency, the nagging irritant, pivotal for democracy”

  1. AnuD Says:

    See how dumb the People in US are. What ever happens inthe world, what do they know – nothing. Only the people who get affected directly start questioning what happens outsode.

  2. Naram Says:

    We have a US President today who had first hand experience of what it is to be not quite prosperous and have a parent suffering from a dreaded illness in a country without universal health care. He made many impressive speeches in the campaign on this vital issue.

    Yet political lobbies are so will entrnched to oppose any move to broaden the provision. I have heard of many fmilies who had to sell their homes and move into trailerparks to paytheir health bills.

    In the so called ‘drone’ attacks on civilians too one has seen a dramatic increase sice the Bush days. Numbers of suspects held by US forces in various foregn locations have not gone down despite the election promises. What was an irritant will soon come to cancerous proportions.

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