Leaders of the UPA government and the Congress have publicly expressed concerns about corruption in India of late. Criticism from such quarters might lead to the government intensifying efforts, but won’t curb the chronic disease with huge social costs in the absence of a deep-rooted strategy. An insightful paper has questioned the potential for success of monitoring and auditing programmes and pointed out that behavourial responses to regulation need to be factored in.
Published in the Economic and Political Weekly early this month, the paper, “Corruption in the driving licensing process in Delhi”, is based on a study by Bertrand, Mullainathan and others. This process was chosen because its bureaucratic process is akin to common services such as business licences, passport services, et al, and the social costs of corruption were easy to gauge. The study finds a deeply distorted bureaucratic process—licence getters pay on average about 2.5 times the official fee to get the licence. Worse, nearly 60% of them didn’t even take the test and 54% were unfit to drive, according to the researchers’ independent testing.
But a simple monitoring of licensing officials won’t do, says the study, since corruption here is institutionalized in the form of “agents” who charge extra legal fees to pay the bureaucrats concerned and facilitate the licence. And it’s not just a “time-saving” intermediation—53% of those who used an agent failed the independent test, against 25% of those who didn’t.
Two significant issues are highlighted. First, simple anti-corruption measures such as banning agents don’t help if efforts are ad hoc and isolated. Aspirants, and agents, merely manipulate residency norms and move to a different regional transport office (RTO), or other states. Indeed, the extra legal fees at other RTOs can go up. Second, the process itself “demands” the use of an agent—42% of the licence getters hired an agent at the start of the studied process, but by the end of it the figure was 71%.
Clearly, there are complexities in dealing with corruption, which is often hidden thanks to the role of agents. And faulty regulation offers incentives for monitors to look away, and for individuals to use new routes to avoid these.
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