A systemic approach to reducing corruption

A systemic approach to reducing corruption

In the anti-corruption debate that saturates the media today, everyone has their favourite fix. The Jan Lokpal supporters believe that the answer lies in creating a strong Lokpal with wide powers to detect, investigate, prosecute and punish the corrupt. They are right, too. India’s oversight of higher level government, including high-level politicians, bureaucrats and judges, is weak and fragmented. The result—few of them have lost jobs or faced criminal action for corruption.

Then we have the lamenters, who burrow into history to extract stories of perfidy and intrigue, of deserting armies and spies bought over, to justify their case that Indians are incurably corrupt. If we are to believe these purveyors of the eugenics of corruption, then surely we have a pro-corruption gene lurking somewhere in our South Asian DNA.

Yet, studies across the world show that many countries have been able to drastically reduce corruption, so fast that we cannot attribute its demise to a sudden improvement in morals and ethics. They did this mostly through a series of system improvements and simultaneous crackdowns on the corrupt.

There are several rigorous theses that have been built around a “systems" view of corruption. One respected model is by Robert Klitgaard, who presents an understanding of corruption in a simple yet powerful formula, C=M+D–A, corruption equals monopoly plus discretion, minus accountability. Wherever these conditions exist, be it the public or private sector, corruption tends to happen.

The solution to corruption is self-evident in the formula. If we reduce monopolies, reduce discretion and increase accountability, corruption can come down dramatically. Demonopolization of the telephony sector shows how corruption has been eliminated in retail telephony services. The filing of e-returns for income tax, automatic assessments and sending of tax refunds directly to assessee bank accounts is an example of reducing corruption through the elimination of human discretion. Seen through the filter of this formula, the positioning of a strong Lokpal within an overarching anti-corruption system is in increasing accountability.

Klitgaard’s approach to reducing corruption makes sense because it does not look upon corruption through the lens of morality, as the lamenters do. He terms corruption as a crime of calculation, not one of passion. Nobody is born corrupt. However, as long as people anywhere find that rewards are high and punishments are unlikely, they will continue to drift into corruption. The taking of a large kickback on a contract, or cheating on medical and transport bills is prompted by the same calculation; temptation and the secure knowledge that one won’t get caught. That is why, many government and private officials start off being honest, then become corrupt over time.

Those who support a Lokpal must realize that this institution alone cannot reduce corruption. The most important shortcoming is that it focuses only on corruption involving public servants; private sector corruption is left out from its purview. Moreover, even in the public sphere, the Lokpal’s effect will be multiplied only if it goes hand in hand with systemic reform that simplifies procedures, reduces discretion and demonopolizes whatever can be demonopolized, so that citizens have a choice between service providers. In such situations, the corrupt service provider will be competed out of the market.

Ipaidabribe.com concentrates on finding systemic solutions to corruption. We analyse the burgeoning database of citizen-sourced experiences on corruption posted on our site, now more than 12,000, and suggest improved workflows to the government to reduce corruption- prone processes. Since our proposed solutions are data-driven and specific, they are difficult to be ignored.

Significantly, 14% of experiences reported on the site are of citizens’ successfully resisting corruption and of where they did not have to bribe, thanks to a good government officer or a streamlined system. We tease out from these what patterns of behaviour and strategies work, and help citizens to avoid bribe- paying situations by giving situation-specific and generic advice.

The lamenters do play a useful role, though. Their depressing dirges about the corrupt culture of Indians may hurt national pride enough, to spark an upsurge of societal disapproval of corruption. However, we cannot expect this to rise spontaneously; it has to be spurred by an initial concerted and successful effort in anti-corruption reform. It is when we stop and reverse corruption through systemic reform that society will change track from celebrating corruption, or standing by helplessly,?to disapproving it.

What we need not waste our time on is in wishing that morals will improve or waiting for messiahs to rid India magically off corruption. Nobody is going to descend from heaven and banish corruption by waving a magic wand.

We cannot outsource our anti-corruption initiatives to agitations and hunger strikes either, if we are unwilling to combat corruption in our personal transactions with the government. If you can claim your passport and ensure that your flat is registered without paying a bribe, even if you have to endure considerable inconveniences, that is when you can hold your head up high and say that you have done something lasting to combat corruption.

T R Raghunandan is coordinator, Ipaidabribe.com, a website run by the Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy.

Comment at views@livemint.com