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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Corruption in India: A vicious nexus

IN INDIA, corruption is so deep and pervasive, and its ramifications are so wide and varied that it would be facile to capture the problem through some anecdotal information, as attempted in the Reporter’s Notebook. A qualitative counterpart to the quantitative scoreboard should mean at least dissecting samples from every aspect, which the scoreboard covers. This may not be possible without a compendium of corruption reports, which in any case is not available. Though the Reporter’s Notebook is on the whole correct, some elaboration of the issues is in order.

As Delhi is India’s political capital and its capital of sleaze, it is possible to pick up some cases from Delhi. But that may provide a good idea of the magnitude of the problem, considering that India is a large country, in terms of its population, geography, social, economic, political, commercial and cultural diversity. And, Delhi is only a tiny part of the country.

To restate the perception of some laypersons, in India corruption is rampant and appears in different forms with different intensities and degrees of salience.

One problem of describing corruption in India is that the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) is concerned only with corruption relating to Government of India institutions and its auxiliaries or undertakings. As each state has its own anti-corruption agency. What the Vigilance and Anti-corruption Bureau does is very important. As the CVC is of high profile, it is in the media. This is not the case with the state bureaus, and there is a lot of corruption in all Indian states.

Another problem is, when a citizen has to get his or her work done, he or she has to deal with the central or state bureaucracy at different levels, depending on what he or she has to get done. If a person has to get her driving license, then they have to deal with the state agency; if they have to buy or sell land or related items, such as buildings and apartments, they have to again deal with the agency; if they approaches a government hospital for treatment, they have to deal with the agency. In all these and similar agencies, there is always some corruption in one form or another. But it is generally accepted that of all state agencies, corruption is highest in the revenue department, which deals with land and related registration issues. Often, citizens may not even be aware that they are paying bribe for getting their work done, as they work through intermediaries.

In understanding the complexity of the problem of corruption in India, there is a need to group citizens and institutions into different categories. Though occasionally, some high-profile case is reported in the media, often corruption in high places and in high cases goes unnoticed. What is noticed and booked under corruption laws are small cases.

For example, when the Madras High Court dismissed an anti-corruption case against former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, J. Jayalalithaa, there were rumors that the concerned judge had accepted a bribe. Reason, the judge dismissed the case by comparing the market value of land (the case involved a land scam) to the market value of onions – as reported in the media, appeared ludicrous.

If one were to categorise professionals, probably the most corrupt and corruptible class is politicians. There have been exposes here and there after one sting operation or another. But, there is hardly any report of anyone getting punished or imprisoned because of corrupt activities.

Another class, which is highly corrupt, is the legal class, involving both the bar and the bench. Most lawyers insist on getting their fees in cash and do not give a receipt. The fee is not standardised or rationalised by the state or the judiciary. It is only to be presumed that the lawyers fudge their income tax returns. If one has to believe media reports, some judges, starting from the lowest level of magistrates, are also corrupt. But the legal class has never been a media target.

A third class, which is highly corrupt are the doctors, particularly those in private practice. There is hardly any report on corruption involving doctors. A recent expose, after a sting operation by the CNN-IBN TV channel, detailed doctors in north India, amputating legs and arms of healthy people, as part of a thriving ‘beggar industry’ made news for a couple of days. There are cases of kidney sales in which the doctors make a good fortune, that too in government hospitals. But the cases have only news value. The state is not known to act persistently.

The Indian health and education sector (besides, of course, the revenue department) are generally perceived as highly corrupt. Both are also highly neglected state sectors.

India has an extremely weak and sloppy public health system, and those who can afford to pay will never go to a government health center or hospital. This makes the private medical profession lucrative and totally unaccountable and arbitrary in what it does, and gives a lot of scope for corruption in the private sector also. I have not come across any doctor, issuing a receipt for fees collected.

The neglect of the education sector by the state, combined with the ongoing globalisation and entry of private agencies has made the education sector highly corrupt. This is seldom reported in the media. An engineering seat in a deemed University or private college is sold for Rs. five to 10 lakhs. The cost of a medical seat is about Rs. 25 to 40 lakhs. Only those who take hefty bribes can afford to pay such hefty sums, and having paid, after completion of the course, the first aim of the person and those who invested in them is to recover the money. So corruption breeds corruption and India is a fertile ground for it.

The reference in the Reporter’s Notebook on police is correct but needs elaboration. The police department in India is probably the most dreaded organisation of the state, as far as ordinary citizens are concerned. Generally, people are scared of going near a police station; leave alone lodge a complaint with it.

I have had my own experiences with the police. To cite only one, when the treasurer of an apartments owners welfare association was threatened by the builder of the apartments, as a secretary I wanted to lodge a police complaint. But the treasurer refused to have anything to do with the police. When he was threatened again and the builder’s brother trespassed into his flat, I prevailed on the office-bearers to go with me to the police station and lodge a complaint. Since the builder’s brother and I share the same name, the police turned the table on me and began phoning, stating that there is a case filed against me. A sub-inspector even went to my office, from where he telephoned my residence. I sent a copy of the complaint to the commissioner of police. Nothing happened. I sent him a reminder and sent a copy of it to the home secretary with my visiting card attached to it.

The police commissioner did not act. But the home secretary, known for her efficiency, and who presumably also knew me through my writing in the press, overreached the police commissioner and directed the deputy commissioner of police of the concerned city zone to submit a report within a week. After this, the president of the association and I received a series of phone calls from the assistant commissioner of police to get an appointment with us and settle the matter.

The police’s inaction and indifference in the matter was mainly because of the moneybags of the builder and was circulated among all the agencies concerned with his real estate business. Ideally, the controversial demolition drive going on in Delhi should have taken place in Chennai long ago. But it may not happen at all, as the Madras High Court is highly politicised, and in Chennai the nexus between the builders and the City Corporation, Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority and Revenue Department, is very strong, and the judiciary, as elsewhere in India, is lackadaisical.

Far from reducing globalisation seems to be increasing corruption in India, though it is not yet highly visible. One has to compare the salary and perks paid in multi national companies (MNCs)with those paid in the state sector. The choice is for employees of the state sector to join MNCs, or offset their loss" with bribes. As most of them are either misfits in MNCs or are reluctant to leave their permanent jobs in government, as they prefer to remain low paid and corrupt.

What Gunnar Myrdal, characterised as the ‘folklore of corruption’ in Indian context is still very relevant. What one may have to add is in that in developed countries, corruption is ‘institutionalised’ through incentives built into the salary, whereas in India it is ‘institutionalised’ through illegitimate speed-money.

The Right to Information Act and introduction of e-governance, etc., are expected to add to good governance, transparency, efficiency in delivery mechanisms and reduce corruption. But often these innovative efforts end up as appendages of the government. Only some agencies like the media and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) activists are able to use them, but not the ordinary citizens.

To conclude, India persists with its old politician-bureaucrat-middle-man-fixer-criminal nexus in breeding corruption. Corruption in India is a vicious nexus and a vicious circle. How to break this nexus and circle is a big challenge.

By Shelendra


Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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