the many other forces that have proliferated in the
economic boom of the brash new India is conflict of
interest. So widespread, comprehensive and many-tentacled
has this feature become that it is often no longer even
recognized to exist, much less to be a problem. The
practice is now so common that it is even hard to single
out just a few cases or get more outraged about some
compared to the overall pattern of behaviour.
But consider just a few examples, which many of us would
have come across directly, and the indirect consequences
of which all of us face. Senior bureaucrats promptly
take on post-retirement jobs with companies that have
been affected by policies and implementation they have
directed while in office, with no one batting an eyelid.
Those in economic Ministries are the first to be snapped
up, as banks and private companies vie to have them
on their boards, and others take them on as ''advisers''
who are valued precisely because they are completely
informed about the inside workings of government.
Others who have worked in particular line departments
unsurprisingly find places in companies (and even lobbying
firms) that deal specifically with those and related
activities. The ''revolving door'' through which important
people move from private to public life and back is
a well-known (and global) means through which the corporate
sector exercises influence over public policies. None
of this is illegal, and none of it is even much remarked
upon, so inured have we become to the grey areas in
which ''public private partnerships'' are conducted in
There are other means as well. Committees and Commissions
that advise on critical matters like financial regulation
or pricing of utilities often contain representatives
of banks and companies that would be directly affected
by their decisions. Or some of the members join such
firms fairly quickly after serving on such bodies. Large
agribusinesses and other corporate bodies are regularly
represented on officially designated advisory bodies,
some of which even have statutory powers. Multinational
food giants and pharmaceutical companies host or sponsor
activities of professional organisations that can set
standards or influence the advisory decisions of health
and nutrition professionals.
Sometimes - though these are relatively rare occasions
- such practices create a public outcry that causes
some change. It is noteworthy that these changes do
not happen easily: they require intense and prolonged
pressure and often legal action.
example, in March 2011, the basic regulatory body for
food in the country - Food Safety and Standards Authority
of India (FSSAI) - was forced to reconstitute its expert
panels. But this was only after a Public Interest Litigation
by the Alliance Against Conflict of Interests caused
the Supreme Court to intervene. The FSSAI had instituted
eight scientific panels, of which seven included as
many as 18 members who were actually employees of big
For example, the panel for sampling and analysis had
a member from Coca Cola India Pvt Ltd - even though
that was one of the companies named in an independent
study of pesticide residues in popular drinks. The panel
for food additives and flavouring had representation
from both Coca Cola India and Pepsico International
- yet it was supposed to provide objective and impartial
advice. The scientific panel on labelling and claims/advertisements
included employees from the companies Nestle and Hindustan
Unilever, both of which had been made to withdraw misleading
television commercials the previous year.
The shocking thing is not just that such appointments
could be considered in the first place, but that even
after alarm bells were raised by the public, they were
not withdrawn until the Supreme Court explicitly castigated
the FSSAI and forced it to change. In other cases, where
legal processes have not forced revision, protests against
such conflicts of interest are simply shoved under the
carpet or ignored.
But the government and public institutions are not the
only ones guilty of such conflicts of interest. The
increasingly commercialised and corporatised media are
big-time practitioners of this. Some media - both newspapers
and TV channels - are directly owned by large corporate
houses, and therefore it is surely no surprise if there
is some control over editorial policy especially when
the interests of that corporate house are involved.
Since media are critical in making the public aware
of issues and affecting public policies, this type of
conflict of interest also has extremely serious and
Indeed, there are also cases in which the media group
is not directly owned by some companies but still receives
money, in the form of advertising revenues or other
sponsorship that may influence its reportage and even
editorial positions. For example, the chief sponsor
of the Indian Express Groupís 2011 Ramnath Goenka Awards
for excellence in journalism, including ethics in journalism,
was the Jaypee Group. This group of companies has major
interests in building dams, both for the Narmada River
and in the Northeast. ''Coincidentally'', a few months
previously the Indian Express newspaper had mounted
major campaigns against anti-dam campaigners in both
places, particularly in the Northeast, and in favour
of large hydro projects in the region (which were also
to be contracted to the Jaypee Group). Another sponsor
of this event was the seed company Mahyco Monsanto which
produces GM seeds - and once again it emerges that the
Indian Express had produced a number of articles and
reports in favour of GM crops before that.
The most egregious example of such conflict of interest
is obviously in the paid news that has come to proliferate
in large chunks of both local language and English media.
A recent article by P. Sainath in the Hindu ''Reaping
gold through cotton, and newsprint'' on April 10, 2012,
showed how the Times of India had published a full page
feature on the benefits of BT cotton in Vidharbha, Maharashtra,
a paid advertisement masquerading as news, which contained
supposedly objective but unverified ''reports'' that
had already appeared in the paper three years previously,
in which clearly false claims were made! As Sainath
notes, the full page appeared twice in three years:
''The first time as a story trip Ďarranged by Mahyco-Monsanto.'
The second time as an advertisement arranged by Mahyco-Monsanto.
The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.''
All this is why a Private Memberís Bill in the Rajya
Sabha(The Prevention and management of Conflict of Interest
Bill, 2011) is of such importance. The bill, introduced
on 27 April 2012 by E. Sudarshan Nachiappan, seeks to
limit the possibilities of conflict of interest among
officials, public and quasi-official bodies and the
like. The statement of objects and reasons of the Bill
makes it clear that conflicts of interest have increased
significantly as a result of the economic policies of
the past two decades.
''The current market liberalization has ushered in an
era of new relationships between the state and the markets,
with a potential for creating a new relationship between
the state and the citizen. Private sector is increasingly
being invited to present their solutions to the nation's
ills. Yet many services, such as public goods-health
care, nutrition, education, water sanitation, protection
of the environment, etc.-cannot be provided by markets.
The primary duty of the private sector is to increase
its profits for its shareholders, whereas the fundamental
and inalienable duty of the State is to provide all
its citizens, especially the weakest and poorest, with
the minimum requirements to live a life with safety
and dignity, regardless of the cost. The Constitution
of India makes it incumbent that the State gives primacy
to article 21 and its expanded interpretation as the
right to live with human dignity.
The differing priorities-that of the State and that
of the private sector-present in themselves a serious
conflict of interest. The current draft legislation
on Conflict of Interest is an attempt to safeguard the
duty of the State towards its citizens and to uphold
article 21 of the Constitution.''
This is an extremely important step. But even the proposed
bill does not go far enough, because there are all sorts
of ingenious ways in which such conflict of interest
may exist. Further, as has been noted earlier, some
of the most worrying examples of conflict of interest
are not confined to public bodies but are increasingly
entirely within the so-called ''private sector'', so
we clearly need to think of ways - through laws, rules
or other frameworks - to control that.
And most of all, we need much more public outrage at
the prevalence of conflicts of interest, away from the
currently somnolent or cynical acceptance of their ubiquity.
This article was originally printed in the Frontline
Volume 29 - Issue 11 :: Jun. 02-15, 2012