Most times I read a piece about corruption, I have what I suspect is a fairly common reaction—“Not another moralizing piece!” And so, a promise —this piece on corruption won’t preach.
We can safely declare that while we may not have achieved universal education in India, we have succeeded in universalizing corruption. Consider the list of corruption-infested activities:
Birth certificates, building licences, ration cards, medical supplies, primary school admissions, examination papers, police station postings, mining permits, master planning, defence contracts, court pronouncements, environmental clearances, NGO funding, corporate balance sheets, auditor statements, bank loan sanctions, burial grounds, petrol pump licences, natural gas concessions, power plants, water supply distribution, affordable housing allotments, parking violations, speeding violations, treating accident victims, telecom tariffs, manure for municipal parks, dairy cooperatives, microfinance, garbage contracts, highway contracts, auto-rickshaw meters, bus tickets, press coverage, beggars, hawker zones, NREGA payments, JNNURM contracts, missile systems, government school chalk contracts, army uniform supplies, temple priests, church conversions, mullah edicts, sales tax offices, small-scale industry licences, coffee boards, political parties, candidate tickets, governors’ offices, intelligence bureau, Border Security Force, train reservations, cricket boards, censor board, Olympic committee, forest preservation, backward class reservation, college admissions, panchayat presidents, municipal mayors, movie-making, temple hundis, heritage preservation, tiger protection, aircraft purchases, milk procurement, government fair price shops (ironically named), RTI offices, rape victim depositions, hit-and-run cases, FIR registration, disabilities Act implementation, foster homes, adoption agencies, fertilizer subsidies, land use conversions, Ganapati festivals, factory emissions, labour unions, employment exchanges, student hostels, passport offices, drivers’ licences, excise duties, tourist visas, pilgrimage spots, death certificates...
From birth to death, we are now immersed in corruption. Thought experiment—try and think of one public activity that is free, actually completely free, from corruption.
If there is a common thread that binds us together as Indians, it is corruption. One massive national endeavour in which each of us is an active agent—either as perpetrator or as victim or as beneficiary. The specific role we play changes—just as Vishnu takes different avatars, we assume different garbs depending on the situation: often victim, sometimes beneficiary, and not infrequently perpetrator.
It’s got so pervasive that there is an almost ubiquitous corruption-level guessing game going on in everyone’s minds, be it in government, in the private sector or NGOs: “I heard that so-and-so is corrupt, that is how they can afford all those new gadgets, and the fancy holidays they take.”
Gone are the days of “innocent until proven guilty”; today the mantra is “corrupt until proven honest”. Unfortunately, honesty is like scientific theory—it can never be proved, only disproved. And so, the honest folk who resist are fighting a constant uphill battle—pretty soon, the corrosive effect of corruption seeps in to erode almost everyone’s defence—built on a varying mix of ethics, fear and fading hope in a day of comeuppance.
We find ourselves so neck-deep in the swamp that we don’t even sense the stink any more. In fact, we have constructed twisted arguments to condone corruption, including the ingenious one which says that all the corruption-driven money eventually comes back into the economy, so it’s okay—that in fact it was India’s large grey market that helped cushion the impact of the global economic crisis in 2009.
When a phenomenon is so pervasive that it engulfs an entire society, we cannot get out of the mess by pretending that some are superior to others, or with lectures that lament a bygone ethical way of life—it only puts everyone off, especially the youth. And, for all its punchy impact, Rajkumar Hirani’s movie on Gandhigiri was never really going to work in real life. This is a problem where isolated individual action isn’t enough— we need something more, much bigger, a combination of credible systems and collective leadership—to catalyse a virtuous cycle of change.
Unfortunately, it’s not clear where the flywheel for this change will come from. Politics is a logical answer, just as it has been in other countries. But in India, large-scale politics is a Faustian bargain with integrity as barter.
For all the gloom, it’s also true that we have the capacity in our country to harness a collective energy, rise above our circumstances, and undertake massive transformation. We’ve done it before —what better reminder than 26 January? Maybe that was a unique event, and we can never have an encore. Or, perhaps, we could do it again. Happy 60th anniversary for the Republic. In hope.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org