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Can the battle against corruption be won?

April 10, 2012

Corruption, defined as ‘the abuse of public power for private gain’, has existed for long. It encompasses unilateral abuses by government officials such as embezzlement and nepotism, as well as abuses linking public and private actors such as bribery, extortion, influence peddling and fraud. Evidence confirms that corruption hurts the poor disproportionately and hinders efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and human development by reducing access to social services and diverting resources away from investments in infrastructure, institutions, and social services. In the political realm, corruption undermines democracy and good governance by subverting formal processes. Corruption in elections and in legislative bodies reduces accountability and representation in policy-making. Corruption in the judiciary suspends the rule of law, and corruption in public administration results in the unequal provision of services. More generally, corruption erodes the institutional capacity of government as procedures are disregarded, resources are siphoned off, and officials are hired or promoted without regard to performance.

In the book Corruption in India: The DNA and RNA, authors Professor Bibek Debroy and Laveesh Bhandari say that the public officials in India may have cornered as much as Rs 92,122 crore ($18.42 billion) in 2011, or 1.26 percent of the GDP, through corruption. Every morning as one opens the newspaper or switches on the television, we are greeted with information regarding one scam or the other. Each one seems to be bigger than the previous one. If we thought that the 2G scam was itself large, the coal scam seems to make it pale in significance. In the initial days one felt anger. Slowly, it became disappointment that the system was letting us down. Then, with Anna Hazare and his campaign, one started feeling hopeful. Now with the campaign having nearly fizzled out, one feels sad, helpless and impotent. Considering that the rot in the system is so overwhelming, can we truly do something about it? Can the common citizen engage with the system and fight the corruption that has seeped into every human activity in the public and private domains?

Over the last 2 months people from different walks of life met and narrated to me the harassment and experiences they faced in their interactions with the public service delivery systems. One very enlightened activist narrated how despite his watchfulness, he was forced to part with his money at one of the land registration offices. Only when he asked for his receipts did he realize that Rs 200 was unaccounted for. In another instance, a few street vendors explained to me how their incomes were at risk each day as they had to pay the local don, the beat policeman, and the food inspectors from the city corporation to stay in business. A team from a nearby residential layout came to explain the problems that they were facing with the local land developer, the local police, and the urban development authority officials. A set of officials from a central government office spoke about the corruption that was within their own office and was suffocating them, as the head of the office himself was deeply entrenched in the corruption. Another person came from an Insurance company to explain the harassment that was meted out to her by her senior colleagues only because she did not cooperate in the corruption that had now become a culture within the office.

Recently I had complained about traffic hazards arising out of parking heavy trucks on the ring road to a local police station but saw no action being taken. On enquiry, a few drivers informed me that all that I had achieved was escalate the unofficial parking fees that they had to cough up. In another instance, the owner of a new restaurant was telling me how he had followed all rules and regulations. He was of the view that if he followed all the regulations, he could not be harassed by anybody for petty bribes. Little did he realize that our people are very ingenuous. Soon he learnt that it was cheaper to just pay off all the local interests and focus on developing his business. Another major restaurant from Bangalore has set up shop in Mysore and without any concern for the pedestrian has completely encroached on the footpath. A few people in the know of things informed me that this must have meant a tidy sum for officials mandated with the responsibility of ensuring that all the city rules are complied with.

Over many conversations I also learnt from a retired High Court judge, a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India and a present sitting judge about the challenges the judiciary was facing and how public perception about the high standards of the judiciary was justifiably being shaken. A few young men in HD Kote Taluk noticed corruption in the MNREGA works undertaken in their villages. They complained to all the officials and politicians concerned but to no avail. They wanted to know what else they needed to do ensure justice was done and the guilty punished. A difficult question indeed! What was even more difficult for them to digest was the fact that they were being threatened and people from their own village were castigating them for being ‘trouble makers’. Some senior journalists remarked once to me that paid news was also another form of corruption and that the media was also no longer the ‘watchdog of democracy’ that they were meant to be.

How do we fight corruption in this situation? Can we trust a system, which has now become well oiled to encourage corruption? Will Good Governance only be something that the average Indian citizen can dream about? To understand this better, we need to understand the complex animal that corruption is. Obviously fighting it would not have simple solutions. We need to look at the whole canvas, understand the multi-dimensionality of corrupt practices, and try to figure out how the ecosystem can favor or inhibit corruption.

Corruption can be said to be of two kinds – Collusive Corruption and Coercive Corruption. In collusive corruption, there is really no victim. It is the system that can be said to be victimized and exploited. Here both the bribe giver and the taker collude together to short-circuit the system. The 2G scam is a case in point. Telecom companies were said to have colluded with corrupt politicians and bureaucrats and achieved their ends. A young man paying off the policeman for being caught not wearing his helmet is also collusive corruption. In the case of coercive corruption, there is a defined victim. The bribe giver is forced or coerced to pay out in order to get his work done. A simple example would be a farmer having to bribe the village accountant in order to get his land records. Or a person bribing the Vehicle Inspector in order to pass the driving test.

One clearly does not want to participate in the corrupt process, but is left with no choice. One does not like to endure the harassment of things getting delayed and one usually succumbs. It is only when there is a person who feels victimized and finds the courage to complain will institutions like the Lok Ayukta or the Lok Pal help. It is estimated that only 30% of corruption in India is Coercive corruption. 70% of corruption being of the collusive nature means that the general level of integrity and values prevailing today have steadily eroded. While this sounds like a dismal picture, I would like to believe that this is exactly the reason why one can be hopeful of fighting corruption. All that one needs to do in fighting collusive corruption is to decide to become honest. The simple dictum of Gandhi of ‘being the change that one wants to see’ is what exactly works in this scenario.

All that remains is our own inner battle. Can we as the average Indian stand tall and decide to stay honest, follow the laws of the land and refuse to either become corrupt and remain incorruptible in all that we do? Then and only then can the battle against corruption be truly won. Laws and anti-corruption Institutions can only provide enabling environments when things go wrong and one seeks redressal. It is the courage to stand against the tide, and lead a value-based life irrespective of the consequences that can make a difference. We need to internalize that in today’s market-driven world, it is indeed expensive to stay honest. But then the fulfillment of being the change can never be matched by the small conveniences that a dishonest existence brings.


Categories: Musings