Can We Solve Corruption?



(International Anti-Corruption Day-9 December, 2017)

Corruption is amongst the most debilitating economic illnesses that afflicts large parts of the world. It erodes the quality of life for ordinary citizens, devastates the moral fabric of society, and impedes growth. In the last four decades, despite several government programmes for the welfare of the rural poor, poverty remains endemic. Either the nets were not cast wide or there were too many holes blown in them. The cruel reality is that money is irrelevant; “What is the point of putting more water into the bucket if it is already leaking so badly? The problem is not lack of money. It is the accountability of those who spend it.” Even the government feels that 85 percent of spending does not reach the poor .it is either sponged by the ‘delivery mechanism’-the consultants, advisers, their equipment or studies or pocketed. This has become a touchstone for all government programmes and is now parroted in all Indian development literature. Much of the Western world aid is running down bureaucratic ratholes.  Corruption is a huge, insidious problem in India that has eaten into every aspect of life. It can lead to pervasive distrust in government, generating civil strife, violence, and conflict. And the results are disastrous for people.

No political or administrative theoretician has come up with methods “to flush out the cholesterol of partisan politics especially in the field of maintenance of law and order. Disruptive political practices and partisan enforcement of laws abetted by “committed bureaucracy” with the active connivance of the intellectuals trading in law have been responsible for the people losing faith in the system and becoming gradually nonchalant towards good governance. The people learn by the example of their leaders—not by the precepts they hypocritically profess and proclaim.

There is no easy solution to the problem. The basic risk mitigation agency, the justice system, is dysfunctional. No crook, who runs away with a bank’s money, can be brought to book under the present system unless he is a small fry. Banks cannot send musclemen to throw acid, take away cars or burn crops as lenders in the informal system do to discipline borrowers. The way India’s political system evolved has made politics the surest path to wealth. The public distribution and social security systems are wrecked by inefficiency and corruption. Social obligations, too, cast a heavy load on the rural population

The corrupt police officials have a rollicking time at the expense of helpless citizens. In fact, there is no link between corruption and poverty. It is easier to convert a corrupt constable rather than a rank officer into an honest person. Rank officers get so carried away by the glamour of and competition evident among their peers, and the aspirations of their family and wives, that corruption and bribes become a part of their lives. Surely education is a failure here.

Indian voters favour a familiar family pedigree, partly because of a cultural reverence for the family and because of habits in some regions that trace back centuries. These are more important in politics than individual qualities or merits in India and they strike at the very core of democracy. Grassroots activists and student leaders with no patronage matter little, and given the huge money and muscle power involved in elections, non-family upstarts can only dream of power from the sidelines. In fact, its impact goes beyond politics, with the reign of dynasties extending to most businesses

Like the mythological hydra, corruption is a many-headed foe that insinuates itself into every part of the social fabric, weakens the body politic, and jeopardises prospects for economic growth. It can wither only after the heads are lopped off. Petty corruption includes slipping banknotes to the police and to officials to get paperwork done.   Businessmen have to offer “speed money” to avoid red tape. Corruption has been a long-standing problem in India that successive regimes and governments have battled   and mostly failed.    In his magnum opus, Arthashastra, written nearly three centuries before the Christian era, Kautilya, the classical master of statecraft observed: “Just as it is impossible to know when a fish moving in water is drinking it, so it is impossible to find out when government servants in charge of undertakings misappropriate money.”

The phrase, ‘probity in public life’ has become an oxymoron. Although national anti-corruption agencies can be critical in preventing corruption before it becomes rampant, not only are they difficult to set up but they often fail to achieve their goals once they have been established. They may be so beholden to their political masters that they dare not investigate even the most corrupt government officials, they may lack the power to prosecute, and they may be poorly staffed.

The time to start popping the corks would be when corrupt officials are actually convicted and penalised. Unfortunately, India’s criminal justice system has a truly pathetic record on this front. As long as that remains true, much-publicised arrests serve little or no purpose. They certainly do not act as effective deterrents to potential bribe-takers or bribe-givers. Corruption is too often seen as merely a moral issue. Not enough people realise just how crippling an economic factor it can be. The cost of the bribes clearly must be factored into the business model and hence into the costs.

Moreover, a corrupt system favours those who can ‘fix’ things over those who are simply efficient at their business, thereby reducing efficiency levels in the economy relative to what they would otherwise have been. The cost of each of these factors, of course, is ultimately borne by the customer. Consider also what happens when much-publicised raids and arrests end up without anybody being convicted. Each of the players in this corrupt system now has ‘legitimate’ reasons for demanding a higher margin on the grounds that risk levels have increased. Governments have recognised the damage that high-interest rates do to Indian business. It is time that they recognised that corrupt systems inflict a much larger cost. Having recognised this, they must act on that understanding. That means not just periodically arresting a few corrupt officials and sending them to jail for a short stint, but providing them long-term residence in that institution.

Corruption is harmful in three different ways. It is is anti-poor since the resources meant for poverty alleviation schemes get syphoned off by corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. It is anti-economic development. One method by which one can tackle the problem of corruption is by sensitising the people at large about the evil effects of corruption and how corruption comes in the way of fulfilling the genuine demands of the public like drinking water, better roads, better power supply, etc. The Indian citizen is paying 40 percent extra for the power he is using because of corruption. One key to success in building effective anticorruption agencies rests in the willingness of the proponents of good governance to share their experiences and to work together to develop greater knowledge of best practices. Finally it is the people who can bring about the much needed change through suffrage. in India corruption  pervades because the common sufferers are also tolerating it.

Nani Palkiwala, a great legal luminary and economist from India remarked in his book, We, the People: “Truly, we Indians are a ‘low arousal’ people. We endure injustice and unfairness with feudalistic servility and fatalistic resignation. The poor of India endure inhuman conditions which would have led to a bloody revolution in any other country.”

Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker .He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades .He can be reached at [email protected]


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