June 12, 2008
Within the first couple weeks of arriving in India, I asked an Indian friend whether corruption was really as widespread as I had heard. To illustrate how common corruption is, he told me: ”A bad man isn’t someone who asks for a bribe. It’s someone who takes the bribe but doesn’t do what you paid him to do.”
Fortunately, in my two years in India I have never been asked for a bribe. Being a foreigner and a journalist surely shields me from the corruption that infects daily life in India. But in my reporting across India, I have seen how deeply corruption corrodes the basic foundations – literal and figurative – of this country.
Government money allotted to schools, health clinics, road repair, government meal programs for the poor, monsoon flood victims – you name it – don’t reach the intended destination because it is siphoned away. What that means is that the worst-off children do not get school lunches because government food is sold to line someone’s pockets.
These social problems persist not for lack of money in government coffers but because funds do not reach the needy. For that reason, corruption underpins India’s shortcomings and tackling it is absolutely critical to the country’s development.
The metaphor of a pipe riddled with leaks that yields but a trickle of water is an apt metaphor for corruption in India. Plug the leaks and water would flow from the pipe. Likewise, uproot corruption in India and basic services would dramatically improve. So would the lives of hundreds of millions.
This is all easier said than done, of course. A new report from the United Nations Development Program released on Thursday spotlights the toll of corruption in Asia.
Corruption ”hits hardest at the poor – who often depend heavily on public services and the natural environment and are least able to pay bribes for essential services that should be theirs by right,” said the report.
Indians spend about $4.5bn a year on bribes to 11 public departments to obtain anything from a marriage licence to a tax refund, according to a 2005 study by corruption watchdog Transparency International.
How does one fix India’s metaphorical leaky pipe that, with all its holes, resembles a sprinkler? This seems an impossible task.
But cracking down on corruption in India is not hopeless. Alexandra Wrage, head of US anti-bribery NGO Trace, observed that corruption in India was less entrenched than Russia, China and African countries.
She observed that corruption in India tends to be scattered and disorganized. ”I’m optimistic about curtailing it in India,” said Ms Wrage last year at the launch of ”Bribeline”, an online reporting system that names and shames bribe-takers.
Slow and flawed as India’s judicial system may be, at least the country recognises the rule of law unlike many other countries. ”India has the raw material to work with,” said Ms Wrage.
Indeed, several anti-corruption initiatives in India have made remarkable strides. After a 10-year-battle, activists in 2006 passed a national ”Right to Information” (RTI) act that requires all government offices in India to disclose status reports and decision-making documents at the request of any citizen.
A 2006 visit to an information “camp” hosted by RTI volunteers in a Delhi stadium was revealing. One elderly man clutched a sheaf of government papers that showed how he had applied for his pension for years but was repeatedly denied (an official asked for a large bribe in exchange for starting the man’s pension disbursements).
Average people can’t get their food ration cards, tax returns, marriage and birth certificates, passports and other paperwork necessary for work, travel and welfare. RTI allows them to expose these bottlenecks. At a larger level, RTI also provides transparency for government contracts.
RTI is such an important weapon against corruption that it was hailed as one of the current government’s major achievements in the prime minister’s annual ’report card’ to the people last month. Eight other countries in Asia have launched RTI laws, according to the UNDP report.
Technology can play a critical role in stamping out corruption. An extraordinary government initiative in Karnataka, home to tech hub Banagalore, has digitized 20m land records of farmers.
This means that farmers can freely access their land records, which had typically remained hijacked by bribe-demanding bureaucrats in remote government offices. Without those flimsy paper land records, farmers were unable to access food rations, fuel and fertilizer subsidies, not to mention sell their land.
The program, called ”Bhoomi” (or ”earth” in Hindi) was begun in 2003 by Rajeev Chawla, then head of e-governance in Karnataka. He spearheaded creation of a computer network that stores electronic land records, which can be accessed for a small fee by farmers.
Mr Chawla is a member of the elite IAS civil service and a graduate of one the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (Kanpur). In an interview last year, he recalled that he was the only member of his IIT class who did not move to the US for a lucrative job back in the 1980s.
A post as head of e-governance sounds unglamorous and his predecessors quickly moved on to more important-sounding jobs.
But Mr Chawla stayed in the position and conceived and implemented Bhoomi. When asked how he managed to launch Bhoomi, Mr Chawla simply said, ”Political will.”
It is possible to loosen corruption’s grip in India. Mr Chawla didn’t stop at land records. Last year he started the task of digitising the state’s ’procurement’ to track where large chunks of government money to buy equipment and supplies actually go.
And across India, states are rolling out ”e-governance” centres where people will be able to access electronic land records, birth certificates and other documents, as well as partake in online education and medical consultations.
These measures aim to put public services back into the hands of the public and in doing so, make them less tolerant of deprivation.
”In India there is a pattern of improvement,” said Ms Wrage of Trace. ”People are less tolerant of corruption.”
The number of holes in India’s leaking pipe is undeniably vast, but there is some hope for repair.