April 11, 2011
On Corruption (and not pressing the 'Like' button)
by Gautam Pemmaraju
“I dreamed of retribution from the sky. I made plans in the course of my sleepless nights to stop this individual and have him judged by an honest, independent tribunal. I dreamed of a court martial, of justice for the people. I dreamed of a national cleansing; a magic hand would pass over the people, bringing order to this society in which ultimately anything goes. I turned my dreams over in my mind until I was stricken with laughter or a fever”.
- Mourad (in Tahar Ben Jelloun’s Corruption)
Earlier this week a noisy gaggle of Facebook invitations started flying about beseeching people to join the fight of the activist-crusader Anna Hazare (once a soldier in the Indian Army) against corruption. Anna Hazare, who went on a fast unto death in New Delhi, wanted the central government to pass a bill in Parliament that constituted an independent watchdog/ombudsman to look into corruption.
Corruption in India is, need one say, widespread. It is endemic. And it is insufficient to say just that because it is much more. There is no section of civil society that remains untouched by corruption.
I did not press the ‘Like’ button on the many Facebook invites.
Around 11 AM yesterday, 9th April 2011, when news channels and online social media triumphantly and raucously declared a ‘victory for India’ and that ‘celebrations will be going on’, ‘people are out on the streets’, it could have been easily mistaken for reruns of the aftermath of India’s recent cricket world cup win. Channels showed clips of people chanting slogans, singing songs, victoriously raising fists and banners as the news poured in that Anna Hazare, the self-styled Gandhian activist and anti-corruption crusader, ended his four day fast after the government acceded to his demand to act expeditiously on the draft Jan Lokpal Bill 1(Citizen’s Ombudsman bill). The proposed legislation calls for an independent body constituted by a collegium of officials and private citizens and which has the power to investigate and prosecute charges of corruption against politicians and public officials, as well as pass remedial judgment against those found guilty. It further seeks to invest this independent body with extraordinary powers.2
The (not so) sweet smell of success began to waft about as I continued to surf channels. ‘Strong sense of victory across the nation’ one TV station declared emphatically as it informed viewers that there was to be a celebratory concert by popular singer Kailash Kher in the evening – “we will all rock to that” the news reporter went on to add. A rival station joined in by informing the viewing public that ‘people are gearing up for a Saturday evening of crusading’. Yet another station showed a group of Brahmin boys on the riverbanks of the Ganga in Benares, clad in priestly fashion with caste marks on their foreheads, blowing conch shells in a traditional expression of victory. As grand declarations of ‘a people’s revolution’3 in characteristic hyperbolic fashion, were being thrown around freely, Bollywood celebrities and public personalities began tweeting furiously and one film star tellingly urged others to cheer for the crusading Gandhian, now ‘our national hero’, at all Indian Premier League cricket matches. That the irony is lost is currently not relevant although it may in the future provide a discursive opportunity to reflect on the surreal nature of political reality and public life in contemporary India. Entertainingly, film director Ramgopal Verma, famed for his gangster flicks, is quoted to have tweeted: “I have no idea who Anna Hazare is as I don’t keep track of anyone expect [sic] for film people and gangsters. I will never ever fast for anything except for my own personal diet”.
Mourad, the protagonist of Morrocan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun’s masterful novel L’Homme Rompu, titled Corruption4 in its English translation, is a familiar archetype of a cornered man – embattled by his circumstances and his own psychology. On his way to work, the mid level civil engineer performs his daily calculations of how much money he will spend that day – from the occasional luxury of a taxi ride, lunch, coffee, cigarettes, his son Wassit’s geography book, to doctor’s fees for his little girl and medicines. Having married above his station, he is constantly reminded by his wife and her mother of his fecklessness, his emasculation. It’s a hand to mouth existence and Mourad is forced to live off credit. His perpetually angry wife, suitably provoked by her mother, goads him incessantly, pointing to the lavish lifestyle of his assistant who has a beautiful house, two cars and vacations with his wife in Rome: “All you give me is an IUD and meat for dinner only twice a week. This is no life”.
Dr PDK Rao5, a nuclear physicist who trained at Rutgers, returned to India in 1978 and settled in the small town of Chipurupalli in Vizianagaram district of coastal Andhra Pradesh. His organization Sodhana works for social uplift in the region, concentrating their efforts on intervening on the behalf of beneficiaries to avail of government schemes, subsidies and initiatives. A very early intervention resulted in him crossing swords with several corrupt local and district officials. In a government-sponsored scheme to provide locals with milch cattle, bank officers and veterinary department officials colluded in over-invoicing the cost of each animal and pocketing the difference. There was a loan and a subsidy component to the disbursement and the corrupt parties, as is common practice, worked the gaps. With concerted efforts and a few honest civil servants (a rarity now), Dr Rao, labeled both as a Naxalite and a CID agent during those early years, was able to get the authorities to intervene in a timely manner.
There are various dimensions to corruption in this country, Dr Rao says - political corruption is but one. The critical question for him is whether the system responds and punishes the guilty when corrupt practices are brought to light. It is not an absence of laws, regulatory bodies, investigating authorities, courts etc, it is instead an absence of will, immobility, obfuscation based entirely on interests. Regarding the current street protests in support of Anna Hazare, while agreeing that one must rouse public conscience, an essential feature of participatory democracy, he fears that it seems as if there is a metaphoric vending machine into which one places agitations, candle-light vigils, hunger strikes, TV discussion shows, etc, as currency, and appropriately gratifying products such as political expediency, tokenism, inquiry commissions, lip-service, all too easily consumed by the middle classes, are dispensed with efficient ease. In all the years of Sodhana’s operation in the area, they have never once had to pay a bribe, Dr Rao says, pointing to the fact that corruption is a two way street. Or a superhighway. If there are those who take bribes, there are those who offer them as well.
A high-ranking government official, now retired for many years, recalls an incident during his service. A senior minister had called upon him to take unilateral action against an entity. He refused citing regulatory boundaries and propriety. The minister, angered at his lack of compliance, told him off in apt rhetorical fashion: “If everything we have to do by law, then why do we need you fellows”.
This underscores the uncomfortable relationship between bureaucrats and their political masters. While he admits that what was during his service years deemed to be gross misconduct and malafide, is now standard practice, albeit unofficially, he points to compromised morality/ethics as a critical factor. Politicians gauge and manage bureaucrats - with patronage, rewards, transfers, official harassment and sometimes, threats. Once called upon by a politician to suspend counting during an election, he again refused citing procedure and law. During a cabinet meeting later, the chief secretary, the highest bureaucratic officer of a state, suggested that he comply. “The only way I can suspend counting is if one of the candidates dies” the forthright officer replied in jest “and I would be glad to comply if you are willing to arrange that”. Jokes apart, he realized that it was, in actuality, a realistic possibility. Sarcasm is rare; honesty is rarer still. Compliance is the norm.
Building more institutions, however well intentioned, he says, is not the answer. Reducing the scope for corruption by curtailing discretionary powers and creating more transparency in government/administrative process is one effective tool. If all land revenue records were available online or accessed freely, without any hindrance, he points out, the scope for officers to demand bribes in exchange for information, be it the simplest of procedural requests or inquiries, is removed. Reducing governmental and bureaucratic intervention in public life will address this to a degree. Transparency is a much-abused term. Reduction of procedure, of administrative detail, however, is not so much. The difference is not really semantic, there is certainly some cross-pollination, but reduction of procedure means lesser governance. Not a popular thought. All institutions in this nation are compromised. That is what happens. It is an inherent mechanism of the system.
The official points to two critical ideas here - power structures and personal choices. That officers are made to comply is no secret. That there are those who happily comply is not one either. In fact, the fact that many officers enter the civil services to become wealthy and powerful by corrupt means is also widely known. Ethical and moral dimensions have then to be evoked in this discussion because in many ways, as he notes, this issue is about the moral fabric of society at large and the ethical choices that each individual makes on a daily basis.
Gandhi? Behavioural change linked to ethical ideas and moral principles on a mass scale. And thus political reform, electoral reform, judicial reform, societal change. Realistically and meaningfully. That’s big.
Mourad, the beleaguered protagonist of Corruption, speaks of how ‘one day I amused myself by jotting down the various ways in which people had tried to corrupt me’ – parcels at his desk, lambs for Eid, cases of Johnny Walker, invitations to expensive restaurants out of his reach, an air ticket to Mecca for Umra. Gifts for his wife and children were sent home to. One day when his son takes ill, Mourad finds himself at the emergency ward, ignored by the assistant whose palms are being greased by others for preferential attention. The attendant ignores Mourad and Wassit, turning his back on them with the contempt of those in power (he had gotten rich scamming patients, selling them medicines, and referral commissions to private clinics). Mourad’s frustration increasingly finds articulation:
I filed a complaint with the head doctor for nonassistance to a person in danger. I received a response thanking me for my testimony. I realized that this attendant had a great deal of influence and couldn’t be touched.
S left India in utter despair over five years ago. He was a nuclear medicine specialist. He explained his dilemma quite powerfully to me then. There was a predictable absence of infrastructure and support in the one and only public cancer hospital in his city, so any thoughts of a career there was foolish. Working in a few corporate hospitals over the years, including in one other city, he quickly came to realize that the pressures of ‘performing’ and ‘meeting targets’ had indeed somehow entered the noble profession of saving lives. Management pressurized him about the number of cases he was taking on and when he was asked repeatedly to perform expensive diagnostic tests on patients who didn’t need them, particularly terminally ill ones, he decided he couldn’t fight the good fight in this country anymore. Or rather, he couldn’t live his life accordingly to his conscience here. This is a common story and I know many who have fallen by the wayside in their attempts to stand-up and wave the rulebook.
The idea of personal choice is critical. The pressure to conform, to participate, to turn the other way, is incredible. It works in multiple ways – from subtle sophistication to proverbial 'under the table', 'slipping the note' transactions. Millions of people are confronted with this pressure every single day. How many succumb? What is the essential character of corruption in public life?
A retired senior Income Tax Commissioner who also served on a national economic offences tribunal speaks of the days when direct recruit officers would boast that they were clean. He recalls the time when he was an Income Tax Officer (ITO) in Calcutta and was auditing an Italian-German company that had been awarded a contract to lay gas pipelines. They had refused to produce documentation regarding their income, so as per procedure, the officer went ahead on a ‘estimating the income’ audit. Sure enough, an employee of the company with their Chartered Accountant in tow, approached him for a favourable result, offering an astronomical figure as compensation. “Did I ever give you an impression that I could be bought?” he replied before asking them to leave his office. He thereafter filed a report with his seniors about the incident.
Privatisation and economic liberalisation offered the promise of change, a shift in destiny. Much has changed; in fact, the nation has changed in dramatic ways. The one thing that hasn’t changed is corruption. The deeply entrenched practices and processes within the public sector have been conveniently adapted to the private sector.
Several years ago, my work partner and I met a friend of his over drinks. An aspiring ad filmmaker, he was frustrated by a lack of progress and opportunities. It was within grasp but try as he may, he was unable to snag a contract. He just about managed small, low budget AV films from ad agencies but an opportune campaign, or even a single ad for a good client, was elusive. Candidly confessing to a lack of filmmaking skills or vision, he informed us that it was about business, not talent. He had just had a meeting earlier that day with a creative director in an ad agency. “Listen man”, R told him, “I’m tired of making these cheap-ass AVs, give me a good script”. As the ad executive demurred, explaining that there wasn’t anything appropriate at the moment, a colleague stopped by for a chat and regaled them with stories of his recent holiday to Phuket - the brilliant parties, sandwich massages, and other enticements. R told us that once the boaster left, he looked at his friend and said: “What’s the matter with you man, when was the last time you had a holiday?” The ad executive confessed to a lack of initiative on his part, and with some not so subtle suggestion on the part of R, they shook hands on an ad campaign. The executive was to get a ten percent kickback. More than enough for a holiday in Phuket.
A filmmaker friend in Hyderabad had been sub-contracted to make promotional films on populist initiatives by the late Chief Minister YS Rajashekar Reddy. He went to the camp office along with the contract awardee, an influential person in his own right. They were stopped at the entrance by security detail and after 45 minutes of phone calls and clarifications were let through. There for a quick recce, they were to shoot the next day. As they left, the cop who stopped them demanded chai-paani (literally tea-water; more precisely, a small monetary gesture), which although is essentially a bribe, is also a tokenish exchange. When my friend protested, saying that their shoot with the Chief Minister was only the next day, the guard pointed out, importantly, that he was not on duty the next day.
I know of one person, a then recent migrant to Bombay, who had had to go to the police station to file a complaint for a stolen mobile phone. After the laborious process of a hand-written complaint in a register, the officer left it to his flunky, a constable, to ask the complainant for ‘something for their trouble’. On being asked for chai-paani, the hapless, bemused migrant replied with a polite ‘no, thank you’, presuming, quite ridiculously, that the cop was offering him refreshment. I was told that the language that ensued was quite colourful.
I've spoken to bankers, lawyers, realty/construction businessmen, enterprenuers, media professionals and several others from the private sector. The all have stories to share. It's the very same one.
Mourad’s arrogant, rich and cheery assistant Haj Hamid leaves behind a file for him to look at, telling him, ‘as if I were his subordinate, that I must resolve this problem quickly’. The file has an envelope in it and Mourad knows what it is. He gets up from his chair, wanders over to the window, and watches a street fight whilst smoking a cigarette – the mechanics of deliberation. Circumstances have planted the seed in Mourad’s mind.
“I flip through it. I don’t understand why Haj Hamid insists I study it. Between two files is a fairly thick envelope with nothing marked on it. A white envelope. It could be for anyone. I know what’s in it but I open it anyway. Two stacks of one hundred and two hundred dirham bills. I count them. The bills are new. I count them again. I hear a noise in the corridor and put them back in the envelope. I’m shaking. I’ve never held so many bills in my hands. I’m reading and thinking of the twenty thousand dirhams. I tell myself this could be a start. In a few minutes I could earn four times my monthly salary.”
The Right to Information Act (RTI) came into force in 2005 and has been hailed as revolutionary by many. Recently though, there have been attempts to curb it, given the spawning of zealous, pestilential activists across the country, asking all manner of uncomfortable questions. This new RTI activist, armed with the right to demand information, instead of pitifully begging for it or craftily bribing for it, has become a cultural archetype. Not to mention a target as well. Last year saw the murders of several such activists across the country6.
A freelance photographer/aquaculturist7 from Chandigarh who is training to be a lawyer recounts to me a typical systemic absurdity – the kind of deftly practised obfuscating bureaucracy that Stanislaw Lem would have possibly considered worthy of caricature. He had called upon witnesses in his defense in a civil suit. They happened to be the plaintiff's office bearers. The authorities claimed that several attempts to serve summons had failed. He filed two RTI applications – one to the Chandigarh Court to ascertain how many times summons had been sent to the witnesses and one to the Delhi Court (the witnesses were Delhi based) on how many times the summons had been received to be sent to the witnesses. While the court's serving agency in Chandigarh replied under RTI and claimed the summons had been sent six times, the serving agency at Tees Hazari, Delhi claimed it had recieved it only once, that too after the expiry date. Effectively, no summons were sent to the witnesses.. Despite the fact that RTI inquires can also be circumvented (as in his case and countless others), the activist believes that it has empowered many. He believes that the new proposed Bill will also empower him.
The inherent need to conceal and the power to conceal on the part of the system and its perverse elements renders any reform, any sort of systemic response a temporary management. Positive change may occur in the short term, but in the long term, corrupt practices and processes inevitably kick back in.
A Bangalore based friend associated with Janagraha8, a not for profit organization working on citizenship and democracy issues, recalls an initiative wherein people anonymously wrote in opinions of the most corrupt body in the city. The Road Transport Office topped the list. The newly appointed commissioner, in a sincere attempt at reform, requested them to share information on corrupt practices without naming names and subsequently was able to curb discretionary powers and bring about some manner of positive change. The civil servant was recently transferred.
Giving vent to public anger is a good thing; it must be articulated. So while one can appreciate the fact that there is some form of collective political voice (as opposed to blissful apathy), however shrill, sanctimonious and disingenuous it may be, the question then is what is this voice saying9.
This voice is expressing bourgeois triumphalism – a state of being that has infected the nation at large for quite some time now. A long way now from the ridiculous India Shining campaigns of the BJP led NDA government a decade ago, the nation, or the nation represented by consumers of cricket, Bollywood, reality TV, junk food, is speaking up in anger against political corruption. And in doing so, this nation of consumers, as with the world cup victory, is celebrating its triumph. We have arrived, it is our turn now, no one can stop us now, I love my India, Chak De India, C’mon India – these are but a few of the popular slogans that express this idea in no uncertain terms. This is problematic.
A friend points out that on a TV news show today, Anna Hazare, while saying that he believed in the non-violent principles espoused by Gandhi, added that he was not averse, like the great Maratha warrior king Shivaji, to cutting off the hands of wrongdoers. Kiran Bedi, a retired senior police official and anti-corruption activist in her own right, quickly pointed out that Anna Hazare believed in the due process of law.
Mourad’s life changes once he takes the bribe. There is newfound respect in some quarters; he feels a confidence that he had never felt before. But Mourad also loses respect. And much more. He is plagued:
“Seasons betrayed, a time of lassitude on the back of thoughts…Dreams written by the lost sleep of a man stalked by encroaching walls..."
2 Shuddhabrata Sengupta has offered an interesting critique of the Bill
3 Journalist and Open Magazine editor Manu Joseph’s piece critiques the spectacle
4 Ben Jelloun dedicates this book to the great Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer, whose own 1954 book was also titled Corruption.
5 Dr PDK Rao is my uncle – my late father’s brother.
9 Sociologist Shiv Vishwanathan’s piece in Hindustan Times offers a thoughtful and temperate analysis
Posted by Gautam Pemmaraju at 12:05 AM | Permalink