Global Politics

Corruption and Personal Accountability in India

By Alex Gallafent

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Over the last year or so, news channels in India have been filled with talk of officials on the take. The scams have ranged from the selling of telecoms licenses to the improper financing of the Commonwealth Games last year.

Three months ago those multi-million dollar scandals persuaded a 72-year-old social activist called Anna Hazare to begin a Gandhi-like fast in protest. He wanted the Indian government to write new anti-corruption legislation.

It worked, kind of.

Hazare's fast was highly publicized and after four days the government agreed to come up with, well, something. The arguing over what that thing should actually be is still going on.

But during those four days thousands of Indians voiced their support for Hazare's cause, especially online. Hazare trended on Twitter and Indians poured forth their anti-corruption anger on Facebook. Some saw it as a kind of citizen awakening. Others, not so much.

"I saw people tweeting," said Aditya Kumar in Bangalore. "You know, we are with you. Anna Hazare we are with you. But my question is, what do you support? How do you support? How do you support Anna Hazare? Just by saying it?"

Kumar is a 29-year-old software engineer based in Bangalore. He also writes a blog about life in India.

"My point is this: if you have ever paid a bribe to a traffic cop on a red signal I don't think you are entitled to complain about corruption in India."

And that kind of means no-one can really complain, said Kumar. That 100 rupee, two buck bribe to the traffic cop is normal, everyday. No one thinks of it as a crime really, and the cops are hardly well-paid.

As Kumar pointed out, nobody wants to break the law. It's not that Indians wake up in the morning intent on criminal behavior. It's more that India's bureaucracy is too intimidating. If you want to pay a fine the correct way, you have to claw your way through a thicket of red tape.

"So what would I rather do? This is what a typical urban youth will think: I would rather pay the same amount to the traffic cop and this way I can be let off in 60 seconds. So that's the most common thing. Then anything that involves government, anything that involves me standing in a queue and filling a form and then getting a signature from somebody up there."

That 'somebody up there' might be the one you need to bribe to sign off on your marriage certificate, or get your kid a place at school, or even release your loved one's body to you from the local morgue.

This is retail corruption. You want it, you pay for it.

"It's such a pain for everybody," Kumar added.

But for many like Kumar it's also a matter of simple accountability, whether you're an everyday citizen or a powerful government minister.

Over tea, I asked the historian Ramachandra Guha whether India had always experienced this level of corruption, at least in politics. He said no, not in the days of Gandhi and Nehru.

"What was common to Gandhi and Nehru and that entire generation of Indian politicians was that they were personally honest," said Guha.

"They were incorruptible in a financial sense. However over the last 20 or 25 years there has been a deep nexus between big business and politics, and certain types of big businesses: real estate, mining, telecoms, defense contractors. These are the people who depend on state patronage to promote their businesses and in exchange give kickbacks to ministers. And the scale of the kickbacks is what is humungous, you know, billions of dollars."

In other words, much of Indian politics has become transactional—you want something done, you strike a deal, for whatever it's worth to you. Everyday bribes are no different—they're just smaller deals.

But the current outrage, especially in the media, is directed at corruption with a big 'C', at those big government scandals. Aditya Kumar said that outrage alone isn't enough.

"The government of India, the government of the state, the government of anywhere is actually us."

This is the idea that has been missing, he said, that by tolerating the world of everyday bribes, Indian citizens are in a way complicit in the bigger scams and scandals.

Swati Ramanathan is one of the co-founders of a civil society group based in Bangalore.

"We used to take the British on the palanquins on our shoulders and now we're taking our government. We've still not made that transition in our mindsets to say that we are their bosses and ultimately we are the ones that actually put the government where they are."

Ramanathan's group is called Janaagraha, which translates as 'the moral force of people'. A few years back she and her colleagues asked themselves some questions about corruption.

"What is the size of corruption? What if we gave people a way by which they could report the kinds of bribes that they were having to pay?"

The result is a website called I Paid A Bribe.com. It invites people to submit, anonymously, their own experiences of corruption: the amount they paid, where they paid it and for what government entitlement.

One person reported paying two hundred rupees in Chandigarh to get a death certificate for his relative. Another said it took an extra 60 bucks to get his passport renewed in Hyderabad. And in Bangalore, someone paid twenty thousand rupees to register a property—a bribe of four hundred and fifty dollars. And they go much higher than that.

In all, I Paid A Bribe has collected over twelve thousand such reports. The vast majority tell of bribes paid, a few reveal spots of honesty in the system, and some are by people who actively refused to pay a bribe.

The site joins them all together, and it's produced a wealth of crowd-sourced advice on how to deal with corrupt officials, like demanding that everything always be put in writing.

"If you're surrounded by an entire environment that is corrupt it's very difficult to stay honest," said Ramanathan.

The website can help people do that, but it's only part of the plan. The I Paid A Bribe team is able to extrapolate trends from all those stories—which cities are worse, which government departments—and then direct public attention to specific problems in the system. The thinking is that as knowledge of the site grows officials will think twice before demanding a bribe.

India is negotiating its relationship with corruption, and how to phase it out. And it's doing it under the pressure of what Swati Ramanathan described to me as a double whammy, rapid urbanization and expectations from the rest of the world: multinationals want to expand their operations in India, but sense that corruption may be just the way of things there.

"I think it'll take time to fix it but we're a young democracy, we are 60 years old," she said. "Give us another forty years and we'll get there."

'We'll get there'. That's key for young Indians like Aditya Kumar.

"To be very honest, until a few years ago I was doing it," he said.

"I have paid a bribe to the cops, the traffic cops. But now I'm not doing it anymore."

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