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Interview: Dr. Kiran Bedi: Taking on corruption

By Alka Roy Email By Alka Roy
September 2011
Interview: Dr. Kiran Bedi: Taking on corruption India’s top cop continues to make her mark in public life through her noble emphasis on selfless service—now taking on corruption, the country’s Achilles’ heel.

India’s anti-corruption campaign, or the movement, as Dr. Kiran Bedi refers to it, is an apt fit for the country’s first female Indian Police Service (IPS) officer who made national headlines in 1972 for towing away Indira Gandhi’s illegally parked car. Her dedication and insistence on doing things “right” during her 35 years of service have brought her accolades, notoriety, and myriads of transfers. One of her assignments was to run the troubled Tihar Jail with close to 9000 inmates—which she transformed into a prison that offered education, vocational programs and a place for rehabilitation through mediation, aimed at enabling prisoners to better adjust in the society once they were released.

Her policing and “prison” journey have inspired documentaries and films. She has authored several books, setup two NGOs, served in the UN as the Police Advisor to the Secretary General, and won various awards including the Magsaysay Award (referred to as Asia’s Nobel Prize). Dr. Bedi was voted the most admired woman in India and currently presides as a judge in a reality show called Aap ki Kachehri. If that weren’t enough, she also holds law, master’s, and doctoral degrees, has done post-doctoral work as a Nehru fellow and has been an Indian as well as Asian tennis champion.

Dr. Bedi credits her parents for inculcating in her a strong sense of civic and personal responsibility. This is how her 90/10 rule goes: out of the 100 things that happen to you, 90 are your creation. If they are good you enjoy them; if bad, you learn from them. The remaining 10 things are products of nature, and all you can do is respond to them. But how you respond to them also comes from the 90 percent that is your creation.

Dr. Bedi was in Atlanta recently, when she sat down with Khabar to talk about what propels her and her work.

What brings you to Atlanta?

I was at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and spoke about restorative justice, our work in prison reform—with the 3C model—and also about restoring public confidence in a democratic India. And in Atlanta, I’m speaking about the same topics.

What is the 3C model?
3C model is a collective and corrective approach where the community is involved. It’s collective because the staff, the prisoners and the NGOs all work together for prison reform. Nonprofit organizations come in and help the prisoners with Vipassana meditation, etc., and the prisoners also teach and serve each other. So they become a community.

What are the key challenges with adopting your model in other prisons in India?
The key challenge is getting the mission statement right.

Do you mean leadership?

Yes, that requires an attitudinal change. In the end it comes down to what the institution is meant for. What the institution is expected to deliver.

Is the model specific to Indian prisons?

No, the model can be replicated. The earlier model I inherited was the vulture culture, where the system responds only when there’s a dead body. What is required is that you get the right mission statement, which talks about holistic development. Once you get the mission statement right, these become the pillars of the 3C model, where you work on the physical, mental and environmental well-being of the prisoner.

(For example,) everyone in the Tihar prison went to school for two hours everyday. There are aspects of social development inside the prison, where they participate in all social activities, including Gandhiji’s birthday, inter-faith prayers, literacy and vocational training and a panchayat. We have special programs for empowering women, and health care, and then Vipassana meditation. The meditation program has gone on since 1994.

You run two different NGos right now.

Yes, Navjyoti and India Vision. India Vision works for the education of the children of prisoners, while the other works to educate the community.

Do you see all that tied to the same goal?
It is community development and crime prevention.

Did you start the NGos after you left service?
No, I set them up while I was in service. One of them is 24 years old, and the other is now 15 years old. These evolved out of the work I did. But the NGOs are independent. All the details of the programs are on my website [www.kiranbedi.com].

Do you think the challenges with the American prison system are inherently similar?
Yes, the challenge is the same. I’ve visited prisons here when I was doing my post-doctoral work and writing the book It’s Always Possible. While I was writing the book I visited prisons in developed and developing countries.

Now that you are focused on the anti-corruption movement, how do you find the time to run all these programs?
Oh, the programs run on their own. We have a staff of nearly 200 who run these two foundations. There’s a structure in place, and they’re run by professionals, a lot of quality staff, of course supported by a lot of volunteers. It’s a properly run foundation, duly audited, with measured work. That’s why it has lasted so long, and that’s why it continues to grow.

Let’s talk about your work for the Anti-Corruption Bill that is in the news these days.

Well, India didn’t have an ombudsman until now. The whole of last year has been a year of scams. These were fully exposed by the media, with evidence. And yet there was a great deal of reluctance from the government to act until it was castigated by the Supreme Court of India and the civil society. But for this and the public interest litigations, we would still not have sent some of (the perpetrators) to jail. Since India had to align its anti-corruption system with the international systems, and it was a G20 commitment, they came up with a toothless bill which was only a formality. That’s when civil society raised its voice, saying, ‘No more. We’ve had enough. We want an effective, independent authority.’ While the government wanted to push a dud bill, the civil society drafted an effective bill. Now how do you compromise between the two? Because one is an escape route, ensuring the status quo, and nobody would’ve got punished because of that, whereas the other is effective, and gets at the corruption.

So there are two versions of the bill—the Jan lokpal Bill, and the lokpal Bill?
At the moment, there are two versions. One is the government version (Lokpal), and the other is the civil society version (Jan Lokpal). It’s the recent activities like Anna Hazare’s fast that compelled them to bring the Joint Committee. And the Joint Committee has exposed the hollowness of the government. Behind Anna Hazare was a national movement that instantly connected with this cause, because everybody in India is affected by corruption. And now the government has been forced to accept a lot of our issues, though some key issues are under debate, like whether the Prime Minister’s Office and the judiciary should be under the Lokpal; whether the entire bureaucracy should be under the Lokpal; where does it get funded from; and whether the common man’s corruption should also be brought under the Lokpal, and not just that of the top people. These are issues that will be resolved probably by the Parliament now.

And do you think this will happen?

It will. Because Anna is already set on (it happening). This had to be done because for 42 years the Parliament never took it seriously.

How do you think (the Jan lokpal) will be set up so it doesn’t become just another organization open to corruption?
I wish people would read the details of this movement on the website (www.IndiaAgainstCorruption.com). All I can say is that the Lokpal will be an accountable body, a transparent body. These are all in-built provisions—accountable, transparent, independent, thoroughly set up, and responsible to the judiciary, with due processes. These are very heavily loaded words. But to substantiate this, one will have to go through the Lokpal Bill, which is put up on the website.

You mentioned that many PILs (Public Interest Litigations) related to corruption have been filed recently. One of the challenges in the Indian system has been the judiciary itself. Even when the police make the effort to charge somebody, it takes a long time for their day in court to come. The Indian judicial process is one of the slowest.
We’ve asked for funding for special courts so we don’t crowd the system. Judicial reform is a separate issue, but for the corruption cases there’s a strong provision under the new draft to set up special courts. We’re asking for an independent budget so we can have as many courts as we must have.

There is a lack of faith in the government and politicians in India today because of the criminalization of politics. How does the lokpal bill address that?

You’re talking of electoral reform, which is outside of the anti-corruption movement. There are a lot of pending issues that have to be addressed—judicial reform, electoral reform, police reform, administrative reform. There’s a hell of a lot of backlog. Right now we’re focusing on this. But this itself will solve a lot of issues, because at least there will be the fear of punishment.

What do you mean by corruption? How do you define it?
Corruption is basically an abuse of position. Here you are, recruited to serve the people, but you actually begin self-service, and start extorting and doing business.

Would you say, then, that it’s more than just bribery, which is how many people may experience it?

It’s much more. It’s financial, and also (involves) abuse of position, and corrupting the system.

What do you think about the leadership of these movements in India? How they get tied to one person, like Anna Hazare, for example?

Anna Hazare’s movement has created many more Anna Hazares around the country. That’s the best part. We have not got any structures or presidents or secretaries (for the movement). There are just millions of volunteers. Each state, city has created its own IAC (India Against Corruption), like you’ve done in the U.S. here—Non Resident Indians Against Corruption.

Since you started your public journey, you’ve gotten a lot of attention, starting from the time you towed Indira Gandhi’s car. you were repeatedly transferred. And then came your subsequent work in Tihar Jail. Do you think that all the attention helps your cause? or hinders it?
Well, it kept people more informed of the challenges of law and order. I don’t know if any of it was avoidable. When nobody else enforces the law so forcefully, it does make news for the media. But we didn’t do it for news. We did it because it was the demand of the profession at that time.

In your years of service, you’ve served in many challenging places and situations. Was there a moment when you were afraid for your own safety?

Never.

Where does that come from?
God’s grace. There’s nothing called ‘I’ in it. It’s just grace. But it does come from a secure upbringing. Even the secure upbringing is part of the grace because children don’t choose their parents.

Were your parents ever worried about you?
That was quite natural. My sisters, my family would be worried.

Did they ever ask you to stop?
No. They just went along. They knew that was the way to do it. They had faith in whatever I did.

I saw your TED talk, where you spoke with so much clarity. When you’re dealing with really murky issues, how do you find this kind of clarity?
Whatever I do, the intentions are exceedingly clear. And there is no hidden agenda or selfishness. It becomes difficult to negotiate when you have a hidden agenda. Things are very easy when your goal is clear and noble. Take for instance the anti-corruption movement. The goal is that we as Indians must make it happen. The question is what is in it for my country. There is no question of what is in it for me.

Do you have any regrets?
Regret what? I live in the moment and focus on the moment. I give it the best I can. I never kept something back that I could give at that time. So what’s there to regret about?

What is it that you’re looking forward to now?
I’m looking forward to just going on, and being of value. It’s a life of giving. I don’t believe in living for just myself. Everything I do becomes my family. When I worked in prisons, the prisoners became my family. If it was policing, the department and stations became my family. My two NGOs—they are a large family. I write “Dear Family” when I write to them. The country is a family.

What is a realistic goal for people who want to get involved in the anti-corruption campaign?

They need to come together, just as people came together behind Anna (Hazare). It was truly a non-political platform which belonged to all. Because the moment you belong to Group A or B, the other groups distance themselves. But when you say you belong to all, everyone comes to you, out of faith, belief, or ideology, or affiliation. When you give a neutral platform, they come to you as Indians. That’s what happened with Anna Hazare’s movement. All the organizations need to come together under the national flag. Anna Hazare’s flag is the national flag. You may be green, saffron or white. All these colors come under the national flag. Rise above your state, language or cultural affiliations, and show your presence.

At the moment our system is not credible. We have a Central Vigilance Commission, which is only advisory. We have a Central Bureau of Investigation, which is under political influence. We do not have an independent body, which is why the scams grew and grew with economic liberalization. When you’re dealing with billions of contracts, you should’ve put safety nets around. This is a safety net, which we’re asking for. What we’re looking for is a movement to create a system that lasts forever.

What would you like to say to Indians living in the U.S.?
Go to all the four consulates here and show your strength. Also tell the United Nations the Indian government should not be allowed to violate the UN convention. Go to nriac.org, and get involved. Don’t do it because you’re following me or Anna Hazare. If you love your country and you want India to move towards integrity, then do it out of self-esteem and self-respect. Get together and volunteer. Remain non-hierarchical. Don’t get bogged down in becoming presidents or secretaries. Just come together as Indians.

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