When the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III died in 1250 without an agreed successor, his empire went into turmoil. Among the first administrative casualties of the flux were the toll collectors on the river Rhine, which for a thousand years had been the commercial heart of Europe and its principal economic highway.
With the government in retreat, a bunch of entrepreneurial strong-arms took over the river and began collecting unauthorised tax. The illegal tax-collectors of the Rhine made huge fortunes and were so brazen that they came to be known as the first robber barons, a term that has since come to symbolise all that can be unethical and crooked about business.
The predatory barons of the Rhine, who took advantage of weak governmental authority, were not too dissimilar to the new robber barons of the Yamuna who similarly colluded with compromised officials to make money on telecom and the Commonwealth Games.
We have some big guns in jail now and as the wheels of Delhi finally turn under public pressure, the real question is whether we will just clean up some of the new robber barons alone or the Yamuna itself? The rot in telecom and the Commonwealth Games after all is only symptomatic of deeper imbedded problems within our wider governance structures.
It only came to light because telecom licensing and the Games became public in a way that most governmental departments never are.
Take the example of Suresh Kalmadi, now the most famous inmate of the CBI’s spanking new headquarters in Delhi. The symbol of all that went wrong with the Games, as the jeers at the opening ceremony testified, he has much to answer for. He is, however, right in pointing out that his Organising Committee was only responsible for a miniscule part of the total money spent on the Games.
The Organising Committee he headed was tasked with the conduct of the Games itself. The rest of the infrastructural spending: roads, street lights, flyovers, the Games Village, city beautification etc. was all in the hands of the Delhi government and myriad agencies like MCD and NDMC. As the Shunglu panel has pointed out, there was much that is rotten in all of this with routine corruption being endemic.
In street lighting contracts, for instance, the panel found that contractors received undue gains to the tune of Rs. 63.2 crore; in streetscaping contracts, undue gains were to the tune of Rs 16 crore. So will those responsible be held accountable here too? Or will Kalmadi’s head be enough?
The second big question is the difference between wrongs of corruption and wrongs of policy. The CBI, as long as it is allowed to investigate unfettered, can bring those who obviously made money to book but the deeper issue is the enabling environment that allowed this brazen loot to go on for so long.
For instance, despite having won the bid for the Commonwealth Games in 2003, Delhi did not start serious planning until as late as 2006. Despite having all the time in the world, most of the construction in the city was commissioned so late and so near the final deadline that corners were cut on everything from mandatory permissions, to basic quality standards to heavy commissions and over-charging by contractors.
Bad planning clearly resulted in a situation where those in charge could go away with anything in the final dash to the Games in the name of national interest, as in the case of the unprecedented bailout by DDA for Emaar-MGF, which built the Games Village in a sweetheart deal which led to losses of hundreds of crores on various counts for the exchequer.
In the telecom scam, policy was directly twisted to help the robber barons, while in the Commonwealth Games, policy mistakes in most cases allowed nepotism to flourish at various levels. Or was this always part of the plan in any case?
Perhaps there is some solace in the fact that Delhi is not alone in this quagmire. In Brazil, preparations for the 2014 soccer World Cup have run into such a mess that President Dilma Rousseff’s government has announced a new policy of name and shame. The names of all contractors and officials in charge of every project will be put on a site in the hope that if people know who is responsible for which mess, there will be enough public pressure on errant officials.
The Brazilians may be on to something. This perhaps is the very reason Delhi’s Organising Committee refused to answer RTI requests, arguing in the Delhi High Court in 2008 that it was “not responsible to the people”.
The argument was that Kalmadi’s Organising Committee had only taken loans from the government (which may never be returned, by the way) and was only responsible to them, not to public scrutiny, even if the government itself was. Rhine’s robber barons were finally brought to heel through an association of merchants and aristocrats called the Rhine League which created a new militia to crush the illegal tax-collectors.
The question now is will our own version of the Rhine League go the full haul and bring all the robber barons of the Yamuna to heel or just a few showpiece ones to assuage public anger so the rest can resume business as usual?