Thoughts on economics and liberty

The dramatically over-hyped faith in the Jan Lokpal Bill

A friend asked me for my view on the Anna Hazare fast. I thought I'd copy my response to him on this blog, so my view is more widely known.

First, what is the Lok Pal Bill? 

First, an extract from an email I received on the subject:

Drafted by Justice Santosh Hegde, Prashant Bhushan and Arvind Kejriwal, this Bill has been refined on the basis of feedback received from public on website and after series of public consultations. It has also been vetted by and is supported by Shanti Bhushan, J M Lyngdoh, Kiran Bedi, Anna Hazare etc. It was sent to the PM and all CMs on 1st December. 

  • An institution called LOKPAL at the centre and LOKAYUKTA in each state will be set up
  • Like Supreme Court and Election Commission, they will be completely independent of the governments. No minister or bureaucrat will be able to influence their investigations.
  • Cases against corrupt people will not linger on for years anymore: Investigations in any case will have to be completed in one year. Trial should be completed in next one year so that the corrupt politician, officer or judge is sent to jail within two years.
  • The loss that a corrupt person caused to the government will be recovered at the time of conviction.
  • How will it help a common citizen: If any work of any citizen is not done in prescribed time in any government office, Lokpal will impose financial penalty on guilty officers, which will be given as compensation to the complainant.
  • So, you could approach Lokpal if your ration card or passport or voter card is not being made or if police is not registering your case or any other work is not being done in prescribed time. Lokpal will have to get it done in a month’s time. You could also report any case of corruption to Lokpal like ration being siphoned off, poor quality roads been constructed or panchayat funds being siphoned off. Lokpal will have to complete its investigations in a year, trial will be over in next one year and the guilty will go to jail within two years.
  • But won’t the government appoint corrupt and weak people as Lokpal members? That won’t be possible because its members will be selected by judges, citizens and constitutional authorities and not by politicians, through a completely transparent and participatory process.
  • What if some officer in Lokpal becomes corrupt? The entire functioning of Lokpal/ Lokayukta will be completely transparent. Any complaint against any officer of Lokpal shall be investigated and the officer dismissed within two months.
  • What will happen to existing anti-corruption agencies? CVC, departmental vigilance and anti-corruption branch of CBI will be merged into Lokpal. Lokpal will have complete powers and machinery to independently investigate and prosecute any officer, judge or politician.

Now, what's my view on all this?

I understand that people like Justice Santosh Hegde, Prashant Bhushan and Arvind Kejriwal (and Shanti Bhushan, J M Lyngdoh, Kiran Bedi, Anna Hazare etc.) mean good, and believe that more laws and more "institutions" to catch "thieves" will make a difference. Yes, and no. Yes, the RTI act has helped reduce petty corruption, but it is NOT the solution, and the total amount of corruption has INCREASED.

Similarly, I think LokPal Bill is over-hyped. It will NOT achieve anything substantial and may INCREASE corruption.

The problem in India is not corrupt people, but the system that makes them corrupt. The problems are explained in BFN, and the solution must start with a change in electoral laws.

I am CERTAIN that the LP will drive corruption more under-ground than it is today. LokPal can be an add-on, once corruption starts reducing after a change in electoral laws, but currently, with 100% of the politicians being corrupt, and 90% of the bureaucrats, it will only touch (at most) the tip of the iceberg. And it will merely drive corruption into Swiss accounts.

Anna is a nice man but doesn't understand the causes of India's problems. He is a Gandhian, I understand. That school of thought is incapable of creating wealth in India or removing poverty, or corruption.

And yet, I do believe these are nice people and their efforts must be respected. I applaud Anna for his belief that he is fighting against corruption (that this is not the way to do it, is a different matter). Similarly I applaud Baba Ramdev for his fight against corruption (although he too, doesn't have a clue about resolving this matter).

On corruption, JP of Lok Satta is FAR AHEAD in his understandings of the causes (and solutions), and FTI is definitely at the very top of the 'tree of understanding' on this issue. 

Indeed it is very clear to me that corruption is NOT A PROBLEM but a SYMPTOM OF VARIOUS OTHER PROBLEMS. 

Lok Pal Bill, as a band-aid, can't and will NOT resolve the causes of the problem – which arises from bad policy and shoddy electoral laws.


See this blog post and my comment.


(If you find it challenging to understand complex things and must only think of ONE thing, then read this blog post:
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27 thoughts on “The dramatically over-hyped faith in the Jan Lokpal Bill
  1. RC

    I have disagreed with many of your views, but on this one I agree with premise of your argument. Corruption indeed is a symptom. I read somewhere that when the record of two civil servants was compared, there was more development in the area of the corrupt civil servant v/s the non-corrupt one. The non-corrupt official tried to follow all rules and could not accomplish anything. 
    In short the flawed burdensome regulations are the problem that causes corruption. Just by enacting another law will not eradicate it. It may make officials tentative and they will delay taking a decision which will cause detrimental effect to the urgent need of development and more commercial activity.

  2. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    RC, Under no circumstance do I support a corrupt official (regardless of what immediate outcome he or she achieves) since the long term effect is corrosive and negative. All I’m saying is that we focus too much on corruption but that is like a doctor focusing too much on the fever and not on killing the underlying malarial parasite.


  3. A

    Sanjeev, your claim that FTI and Lok Satta are ahead of the curve in understanding the phenomenon of corruption and showing the way towards its eventual containment, set me thinking.

    Isn’t this an ideal time to try and secure a televised debate on any national channel (hopefully one of them would be willing to give these two new parties a break) ? FTI and Lok Satta could start out by sending invites to the other major parties if they are willing to send their representatives. You may find a struggling channel looking for attention but why not. Make sure you have a good debate, and get to post it on Youtube where it will not be forgotten. You will capture the imagination of the dissipated youth. My 2 cents of a suggestion, and Best Wishes.

  4. Bhanu

    Good one.
    You, Reality Check and Offstumped are quite a refreshing antidote to all the 'Rang De Basanti' type activism currently on display on our streets and TV screens.

  5. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear A

    I'm happy to debate – indeed we need to debate. I'm unable to organise, sitting here in Australia. If you can get someone to interview me here I'd be most happy to talk about the key issues I have outlined in my book.


    (for the record) here's my comment on the Reality Check blog:

    There is NOTHING MORE RIDICULOUS than to try to copy one TINY part of Hong Kong’s policy apparatus and assume that it will eliminate corruption in India. Hong Kong has one of the least amounts of corruption in the world – not because of its Corruption Commission (or whatever it is called) but because it adopted the world’s best classical liberal policies of freedom and good public administration. These people, who don’t understand the BASICS of economics or public administration, imagine they’ll cure through a LokPal Bill. That is a purely delusional exercise. Sounds nice, but like other socialist and ill-conceived policy claptrap, destined to make things worse.

    Why not implement the simple solutions I’ve been advocating since 1998, and particularly those suggested in ‘Breaking Free of Nehru’ ( How hard is it to understand BASICS of economics and human incentives?

  6. Surya

    With all respect to Anna Hazare and his compatriots for their noble intentions, I cannot help but notice that a lot of my country men particularly from the middle classes, are placing more faith in coercive solutions. The solution to every issue seems to be a decree outlawing it. Is standard of education low, draft a RTE bill, that regiments every school and shuts down those that do not obey. Are prices increasing, blame the traders, impart price controls, call every trading activity as hoarding and put all faith in public rationing system. Is corruption a problem, create a body of unelected wise men and expect them to pass express judgements.
    This doesn't at all seem a good road to go down. 

  7. RC

        I agree with you. Somehow answers to all problems in India is "more government". Just enact another law and somehow magically everything will be OK. 
    Take the example of Right to Food (or Education or whatever). What happens when this right is violated? Can a citizen sue the violator? If the citizen does sue, will he/she get justice in time or even that will take decades so the citizen will just give up and become even more cynical and detached??
    More government is NOT the solution. If the diagnosis is wrong the proper cure will never be found. First thing is to get the problem right.

  8. sachin kundu

    the only positive thing I want to take from the india against corruption movement is that it is mobilising middle class against the corrupt and moving them from apathetic to empathic towards malpractices in politics. Time is ripe to make people understand that actual solution lies top down through good governance.

  9. virumaandi

    Is this over-hyped? So be it. We need momentum for any change or progress.. If you don't help push forward, it is better to keep aside..
    Having seen failures every time and with the lack of choices, Indians have been forced and coerced to elect the corrupt vs. corrupt. Every new politician with a humble start can easily get elected because of peoples' HOPE for a better day… Dream for a dawn.. What came out of those dreams were nothing but nightmares. It proved every time that "the way to hell was laid with good intentions".
    The pillars of democracy in India are so rotten, a normal and good politician goes corrupt the next moment he or she gets elected. The administrative branch is so rotten to the core it  gives a warm fertile ground for the rest of the branches – executive and legislative to grow and spread the rot. The judicial branch, instead of weeding out the corrupt, just makes them fertile, for this has also joined the hands with the administrative branch.
    Sometimes it is easy to repair, build  and extend a building to suit your needs. Like they did in Hong kong.
    But many times it is necessary to thrash the existing building and rebuild a new one.  Wait a minute.. Or rebuild sections of it.. Such a thrashing needs massive momentum. India sure has all reasons to thrash, but need momentum… Every step towards that is welcome..

  10. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    “If you don’t help push forward, it is better to keep aside..”
    Sorry, Virumaandi, I’m in the thick of things, and offering a MUCH BETTER and WORKABLE alternative. I won’t keep aside.

  11. Alok Agrawal

    I agree with virumaandi that it will help in mobilising the rising middle class of India but at the same time I agree with sanjeev sir also because just forming a lokayukt and lokpal will not help to cure solutions, just see the no. of cases pending in our courts. Hence,it will elevate the problem further. But again we will have to start from somewhere; May be this is the right time to put pressure on our corrupt politicians who think that we are sleeping and don't know what those bloody crap are doing. So, Its better to support the movement in all the possible way so that with passage of time we will emerge as winner.

  12. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    I am not against the mobilisation of the dormant Indian middle class that has gone to sleep while crooks run the country. I’m not even saying I don’t support this fast by Anna. Awareness building is good.

    The problem is only this: that if ANYONE in India imagines that by having a Lok Pal, corruption will disappear they will be BADLY disappointed!

    If the purpose is to become more active in one’s country’s affairs, by all means this is a good thing. If it means, however, that people stop thinking and imagine this will solve their problems, then this is a bad thing.

    I suggest that those who are serious about the ACTUAL removal of corruption (and not just interested in partial ‘solutions’ that won’t work) then please read BFN and join FTI. Unfortunately, NO OTHER solution will work. Sometimes the truth sounds like arrogance, but what I’m saying is well known in all serious academic literature. Nothing new. From Adam Smith onwards. From 1776. The problem is in India we, like big fools, try to create our “own” solutions because apparently “India is special”. That is like saying that the laws of gravity don’t apply to India.


  13. Sunil Jha

    I am not supporting LP (by Indian Gov) but supporting JLP (by Civil Society) which is not just a law but in fact is a system which offers powers to investigating agencies to work independently and to take action against any corrupt politician (including Prim Minister of India) or bureaucrats.
    you have suggested that JLP will offer more corruption. It can be possible only if the people of investigating agencies will be corrupt by knowing that they are more powerful. is it ? or other reasons ?. Now, Perhaps you must be knowing the performance of lokayukta in Karnataka. It works extremely effectively. 
    Talking about RTI. You have said that
     Yes, the RTI act has helped reduce petty corruption, but it is NOT the solution, and the total amount of corruption has INCREASED. 
    Let me clear that RTI is not the solution, RTI is the means through which scams have been came into light and  Also If I am correct, After implementing RTI, India has improved its ranking in TI (slightly from 72 to 70). Further to this JLP is suggested (in fact thought to be) as a solution .
    Other than change in policies, You have also suggested about the improvement in Electoral law (which Anna Hazare has also backed by giving a suggestion of None of these option button in EVM).
    I am supporting this statement that investment in India is suffering due to corruption.
    Anna Hazare has also spoken about improvement in the policies on this sector. However, It is not a part of JLP.

  14. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Anna’s understanding of electoral law reforms is insufficient. And it is only one part of a huge policy reform package. Without the WHOLE PACKAGE nothing will really change.


  15. Nitin Gulhane

    Laws and bills don't make a good nation. I do not know what Jan LokPal bill is going to do but I am amazed at the kind of people who have sent me emails to in support of this bill. The very people who benefit from the corruption have been forwarding me those silly emails about how great JLP Bill is.
    I don't care. Laws never fix social issues and issues like rampant corruption cannot be fixed overnight by passing a bill.
    Sanjeev does have well studied and thought over options to remove the corruption from the system…but  I beleive that petty corruption will die its natural death within a next decade or so (with little pushes to eradicate it here and there along with advent of technology). 
    Well, time will tell.
    Sanjeev, you have been studying India and its affairs for a long time. What do you think India will look like after a decade or so? I know there are way to many parameters to even take a wild guess but what does your intuition says?

  16. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Nitin

    Many scenarios for India exist. The best is to have good policies and good governance (e.g. policies articulated in BFN). That would make it a wonderland compared with what it is today, well on the way to becoming the world’s largest economy.

    The current scenario – with bumbling corrupt fools running the country – will see it tediously trudge towards a little better economic position, but infrastructure would not catch up and corruption would increase (unlike your optimistic hopes).

    The third and worst is if medievalists like Baba Ramdev take power. That would basically take the country back into the 1960s.


  17. kavan

    Hi Sanjeev,

    Do you think right to reject and right to recall is not enough for electoral reforms. And some more will come from arvind’s ambit very soon.

    And for time being leave your BFN for a while. Just tell me why jan lokpal will not be effective enough in countering corruption. will it not punish people like robert vadra and nitin gadkari if it was there now.
    Doctors need to address the cause for fever i do agree. But they need to kill the viruses which have caused the fever. (which are present in the body currently). Killing the virus is the first immediate step(may be by jan lok pal). Then cleaning up the persons surrounding like open drainage which will result in to much of mosquitoes.

    And even JP of loksatta also says LP is required.

    i feel you are over obsessed with your BFN and undermining arvind.

  18. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Kavan

    I don’t care for what others say. I care to speak the truth as I know it. My direct experience in Indian government AND a world-class foreign government is totally unparalleled. On top of that I’ve spent over 15 years in studying policy. So what I say comes from experience (and knowledge) of a sort that none has in India. So I speak what is GOOD for India, and speak against what is NOT necessarily as good (or bad).

    If you don’t like BFN (why?), then try out Chanakya’s Arthashastra.

    Re: why Janlokpal is a bad idea at this stage, pl. see FTI’s published pulic position on this subject:

    Re: right to recall, pl. see

    It is futile to say that Arvind will come out with other reforms later. If his foundation is wrong (and DEEPLY socialist), expect no improvement. But India has suffered from follies for 65 years, it can suffer some more, I suppose, given the enthusiastic blind followers that every half-baked “Gandhian” manages to raise.

    Why not try to check each policy that Arvind has raised against the basic policy framework of 10 questions that FTI has published:

    Why not think for yourself, for a change?


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