My dog Charlie is long gone. But Charlie, who was a brown “Great indian Mongrel”, was wise in the ways of the world. He taught me a lesson in public policy I will never forget.
Corruption is India’s favorite conversation topic. We love discussing it and bemoaning its all pervasiveness. We are experts at it and have all experienced it at in some form or the other and at all levels. Yet with so much collective experience it is a difficult topic to write about. Like our gods it takes so many myriad forms. It defies a simple definition. But we all know what it is. What Justice Potter Stewart of the US| Supreme Court said in the context of obscenity – “I know it when I see it”- is equally applicable to corruption. It is the most obscene of obscenities but is a fairly common one.
Economists prefer to bandy about a different term when referring to corruption. They call it “economic rent”. According to the IMF “it is the extra amount paid (over what would have been paid for the best alternative use) to somebody or for something useful whose supply is limited either by nature or through human ingenuity.” Quite clearly this definition excludes the moral dimension. But then our problems get even more compounded when we realize that the moral dimension is very elastic and varies.
Take for instance the case of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. As far as the Rajya Sabha is concerned, he is a tenant of Mrs Hiteshwar Saikia and is a resident of Guwahati in Assam. But we know that is not true and that he has been ordinarily resident in New Delhi from ever since we came to know him. LK Advani, has been just as peripatetic. At one time he declared he was a resident of Ujjain in MP for the sake of a Rajya Sabha seat. Now he is a resident of Ahmedabad. Arun Jaitley has similarly been vagrant. He is a Delhiwala, but went to Amritsar where he announced he was buying a house to reloacte in 2014. The Amritsaris didnt want the likes of him, so now he is a resident of Ahmedabad. But if you and I were as cavalier as this in declaring our place of residence, say for the purpose of a passport, we could end up in prison.
Economic rent takes other forms, which tax the common good much more. High import duties, for instance, meant to restrain imports actually serve to increase prices and profits for domestic manufacturers. The Hindustan Ambassador, that immortal symbol of a mindless and rapacious bureaucracy, actually gave its manufacturer and employees as much joy as it gave sorrow to those who owned or drove these cars. Did you notice how all car tyres or batteries cost about the same? Or how all similar sized air-conditioners and refrigerators cost about the same? Or till recently how all air-tickets cost the same and an arm and a leg at the same time? Adam Smith explained it best by noting that “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public.”
These conspiracies cannot succeed without the active connivance of the politicians and bureaucrats. We know what they mostly do, but thanks to the exertions of Aniruddha Bahal, purporting to represent an industry association, we have proof for the first time of this. Our MP’s have much to thank Dr. Manmohan Singh for conjuring up MPLADs (MP’s local area development scheme), but the then Finance Minister probably never contemplated the likes of the venerable Sakshi Maharaj who turned the scheme into one of personal development. But though both the two stings involve MP’s scams evidenced are of different natures. The money for questions business is a common place as a traffic cop collecting money from errant drivers. The payment itself is a punishment for the truancy and it does not seem to matter very much where the money paid ends up, We learn our lessons from it. But when the cops collect for registering an FIR or for no rhyme of reason then it belongs to a different class and we are truly outraged.
Those of us in Delhi who built houses or made alterations without the sanction of the authorities paid for the deviations knowing it was contrary to the law. But it was commonplace and that seemed to make it okay. But when the High Court has ordered them demolished we were outraged. What if the same High Court ordered that MP’s making false statements about their place of residence must quit? Would we be outraged? We may be happy but not outraged. This is clearly a subject that requires far greater deliberation and discussion and there is much Parliament can do by way of introspection. There are many who are quite expert on the subject. Chandan Mitra, a former BJP MP, whose concern for probity is as well known as his Chattarpur farmhouse, has even written a book on the subject of corruption.
Opinion polls show that there are some professions we believe to be almost entirely corrupt. Politicians and policemen top this list with 99% of those polled believing them to be crooks. Much of the corruption we witness in everyday life is a result of their unnecessary exertions. In the past few months I have had opportunity every morning to contemplate a vacant plot of land in the neighborhood I live in. The plot is bounded by roads on all four sides and naturally people walking take a short cut across it. Some well meaning soul has taken upon himself to put an end to this practice. First a sign came up demanding that people not do the most rational thing, that is take a short cut. The sign was ignored and my dog Charlie has been using the signpost to leave his signature. Then a small length of barbed wire pegged between two poles appeared astride the path at both ends. The people who use the path still find it convenient to go around the poles and take the not so short shortcut. Good old Charlie just slips under the wire and seems quite happy that he has two more poles to leave his daily markers.
The nature of most of our lawmaking is just like this. They are irrational and people will respond rationally to them, by circumventing them if not ignoring them. Just as Dr.Manmohan Singh has done to the requirement that MP’s to the upper house be ordinarily resident in the state. Now the only way that plot can be prevented from being used as a short cut is to either build on it. If the empty plot is just walled up, the walls will encourage another use, which will be odious to boot. Which brings me to another aspect. We have laws that prohibit pissing in public and on walls, private and public. Pissing is meant to be a private business. But where are people to pee when you just don’t have enough urinals? So a law against pissing in public makes sense only when you have enough public urinals.
Thoughtless laws corrode a state thoroughly. This is why states built around tight regulation and appeals to a higher human idealism fail. The crime wave that engulfed the former USSR was really due to the old nomenklatura doing the only thing they were adept at. It is not that other social and political systems do not germinate corruption. Corruption is all-pervasive and a world wide phenomenon. It comes built in with nature. Animals steal food from each other just as humans extort from others. But human beings live in organised societies and societies are nothing but systems based on laws. For laws to work it must be clear that if caught, trial will be swift and if found guilty retribution will be commensurate.
That’s where we have serious problems. Who makes the law? Politicians. Who enforces the laws? The police. Both are believed to be overwhelmingly corrupt.
The writer is Chairman, Centre for Policy Alternatives, New Delhi.