Corruption is a plague on nations. In rooting out corruption, the work of government in strengthening systems of transparency and accountability is crucial. But ultimately, success still depends on ethical public servants and a vigilant public. In India, forty-year-old government officer Sanjiv Chaturvedi is an inspirational example. Coming from a family of civil servants, Chaturvedi joined the Indian Forest Service (IFS) because he loves interacting with people in the field and working in government. Posted as a divisional forest officer in Haryana state, Northern India, he quickly came face to face with the corruption infesting government. A young, idealistic officer, he did not turn away from the irregularities that he saw but resolutely worked to correct them.
Boldly, he investigated and exposed cases of malfeasance even when these involved powerful officials in the state. In his six years in the state cadre, he exposed anomalies which included the illegal construction of a canal that threatened the critical Saraswati Wildlife Sanctuary; the use of public funds to develop an herbal park on private land owned by a high official; the underpayment of license fees; and the rigging of government auctions. In a foreign-funded afforestation program, Chaturvedi discovered that 90 percent of the plantations existed only on paper, and that funds had been embezzled through the faked signatures of allegedly participating self-help groups and nonexistent workers. Forty forest officers were suspended as a result of his investigation.
Under intense pressure from high state officials affected by his campaign, he was deputed to New Delhi as deputy secretary and chief vigilance officer at the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, where he continued his anti-corruption campaign, exposing and filing cases involving irregularities in government procurement; contracts awarded to favored service providers; kickbacks in building construction; a scam in which government employees collected the pensions of dead pensioners; and the collusion between government officers and suppliers of fake medicines. Relentless, he did not waver even when cases involved high officials in state and central governments, well-connected businessmen, or members of his own staff. At great personal cost, he was harassed, suspended, demoted, hounded and humiliated with false charges, and put “in the freezer.” All these did not stop him.
Chaturvedi is not a circumstantial whistleblower, but one genuinely seeking to reform the system from within. He meticulously investigates cases, submits documented reports, and pursues criminal and administrative action to punish the guilty. Actions he has taken have bolstered government revenues, and resulted in the recovery of stolen public funds and the suspension or removal of erring officials. Still, Chaturvedi is not simply adversarial. He zealously performs his regular duties, carries out meaningful projects, and supports and protects honest employees. Within the sphere of his authority, he has initiated changes in operational systems to ensure transparency and accountability—whether these be better procedures in tracking public complaints or ensuring that wages and benefits of contractual employees actually go to them.
As a junior officer, Chaturvedi’s reach and powers are limited but his integrity and courage have received wide media attention, though he does not himself seek it. On several occasions India’s president and prime minister have intervened to support and protect him from unjust persecution. While his story remains unfinished, he has already become a role model in the bureaucracy and for a public often overwhelmed by inertia and powerlessness. Amazingly, despite what he has gone through, Chaturvedi has not yielded to disillusion. “Despite all the challenges, I have great optimism in the country, in our people,” he quietly asserts. “I have never entertained the thought of leaving the service. Never.”
In electing Sanjiv Chaturvedi to receive the 2015 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes his exemplary integrity, courage and tenacity in uncompromisingly exposing and painstakingly investigating corruption in public office, and his resolute crafting of program and system improvements to ensure that government honorably serves the people of India.
This award has come at a very crucial juncture for me. It is a victory of our national motto, which is Satyameva Jayate, meaning that ultimately truth prevails. For me, it is not a personal award for me; the credit really goes to all the persons who supported me consistently in my endeavours to bring out a transparent and clean government system.
The concept of the All-India Services, to which I belong, is a very unique feature of our constitution where officers are recruited through the central government but occupy all strategic positions in the state governments. The central government has final powers of control over them. The founding fathers were well aware of the importance of these services and, in the words of Sardar Patel, one of our founding fathers and our first home minister:
“The Union will go—you will not have a united India, if you have not a good all-India service which has the independence to speak out its mind, which has a sense of security that you will stand by your word and that after all there is the Parliament, of which we can be proud where the rights and privileges are secure.... This Constitution is meant to be worked by a ring of service which will keep the country intact.”
Like many other developing countries of Asia, in our country also, corruption is a very serious problem. Corruption is not just about money changing hands. It is linked to basic human dignity and the dreams of our young generation in ensuring a fair recruitment system, the delivery of public services, and issues of illegal mining and deforestation leading to climate change. There is no such effective antidote to this problem as an honest and robust civil service. No amount of individual activism or voluntary action, however genuine, can replace this. I would like to remind those here today what the late President Ramon Magsaysay said, that it is the duty of government to bring dignity to the life of every citizen and that once you are in government service, you cease to belong to all other affiliations and belong exclusively to the people.
During my tenure in the environment, forest and healthcare sectors, I had to face stiff resistance from some of the most powerful elements of the system on a range of issues including illicit felling of trees, poaching of rare species, corruption in afforestation projects, supply of dubious medicines, irregularities in government recruitments, vested interests in the purchase and supply of medical equipment, and the problem of large scale absenteeism of health workers. However I was able to bring these issues to a logical conclusion, as in our country the system of checks and balances established by the constitution is still working, and there are institutions in the form of the judiciary, parliamentary committees and the independent media to provide support.
The majority of the population of our country is in age group of fifteen to thirty-five years, and there is a strong urge to eradicate corruption and to bring a transparent and equitable system. This popular support was reflected in the anti-corruption movement of 2011, and in recent elections. I sincerely hope that the pressure built by this young generation will help to eradicate the problem of corruption.
I once again express my deep gratitude to the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation for honouring me with such a prestigious award. This will give me further strength to fight the evil of corruption, and will act as a huge morale booster for all honest and sincere civil servants. I accept this award with a huge sense of responsibility, and promise to try my best to live up to the standards set by the luminary community of Magsaysay awardees.