Home / Opinion / Corruption in low places

An early morning doorbell ring is usually not good news. This time it is Ram Bahadur, the maali, our super gardener who must be one of the few old-style maalis still left in the city. Instead of me, it is he who cries when monkeys smash through most of my pots to get to the cool mud during the burn of summer, (they spread the wet mud like a sheet and lounge around all day—I kid you not!). But today the normally reticent guy is vocal and obviously in great distress. He’s lost his identity papers—someone stole them from his bag on the cycle—and that includes his school leaving certificate (a piece of paper that you need to show that you are indeed alive and of a certain age). To get a duplicate will now force him to intersect with the “sarkar". One can live peacefully in a bubble in India, but one intersection with a government office where you want something will leave you poorer, humiliated and harassed. I promise to help with the advertisement he has to release to announce his lost papers (what ancient regime do we live in?) before he can file an FIR. What the police will do for this favour is anybody’s guess. His voice and face tell me he knows what his next one month will be like.

I can’t help but connect this incident with the conversations from last week on the other side of the globe, where as a part of the Brookings World Forum on Governance in Prague (http://bit.ly/1kVTd7R), I was bringing Indian issues of corruption on the table and listening to the 75-plus delegates from over 25 countries. My first takeaway was that we’re not alone in facing the scourge of corruption and mis-governance. Police and local municipal authorities top the list in every country—rich or poor—in corruption. Whether it is a fledgling democracy in eastern Europe or a well-oiled corrupt regime in a Latin American country—the battles for citizens and civil society looked incredibly similar. What helps? A vocal street level push-back by citizens is the base level of the beginning of change. But this must be followed by continuing solution-based work by anti-corruption organizations. Of course, a country or city may get lucky and elect a corruption cleaner as its head. As La Paz, Bolivia, did in 1985 when it made Ronald MacLean-Abaroa its first democratically elected mayor. He inherited a fully corrupt municipal authority where everybody was on the take. Working on his view that corruption is not the disease but the symptom of a problem, he first carried out a surgery to remove the worst of the cancer by firing the worst of the offenders—people who would not and could not change. Then he opened conversations and promised a fresh, clean, new start to the others. A pay hike to reduce the petty payments for everyday jobs helped. Author of Corrupt Cities, a Practical Guide to Cure and Prevention (2000), Ronnie tells me that he fought and lost the presidential election in Bolivia and now teaches a course on corruption at Harvard.

But La Paz got lucky. Political will is the most difficult commodity in this fight against corruption. Civil society pressure to put in place independent institutions to go after mis-governance is another way to go. Thuli Madonsela is the Public Protector in South Africa (http://www.pprotect.org). The first time I read her designation, I read it as Public Prosecutor! Akin to what a Lokpal will be in India, Madonsela’s job is to intervene when alerted of instances of mis-governance or corruption. The latest report by her office has seen President Jacob Zuma’s office on the back-foot over a security Bill that included a swimming pool as an expense for fire fighting, a chicken coop and a cattle enclosure! You can read the report here: http://bit.ly/1qCBpOc). The misuse of public money for private comfort and gain is a story in every country across the globe.

A strong voice on the table was from social media practitioners who were providing the technology and space for micro-comments to get heard. In almost every country represented, there were stories of the success of social media in amplifying voices that were hitherto unheard either due to geographical distance or due to explicit media muzzling or self-regulation by the incumbent media. There was agreement around the table that we should stop short of trying to load too much on the plate of social media—the conversion of the amplification of voices to action could possibly be the work of civil society and a suo moto notice by independent regulators and authorities in each country. Of course, none of this solves the problem of my maali and his lost papers. But I will go with him to get his Aadhaar number soon. Maybe that is the one number that can’t be stolen.

Monika Halan works in the area of financial literacy and financial intermediation policy and is a certified financial planner. She is editor, Mint Money, Yale World Fellow 2011 and on the board of FPSB India. She can be reached at expenseaccount@livemint.com

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