Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

The mirage of corruption quick fixes

The mirage of corruption quick fixes

A litany of scams has been followed by a scramble for solutions to contain, nay eliminate, corruption. Gandhian activist Anna Hazare, riding a wave of public angst against corruption, argues that a Jan Lok Pal Bill will reduce corruption by 90%. In a much discussed paper, the chief economic adviser to the government of India, Kaushik Basu, advocates that giving immunity to bribe takers “will cause a dramatic drop in the incidence of bribery". However, are such magic bullets missing the wood for the trees?

Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

However, the more ubiquitous form of corruption, the one all of us encounter as part of our daily lives, involves harassment by government officials demanding bribes to access public services. The Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer 2010 placed India in the top-tier of countries where respondents reported to having paid a bribe to access nine public services over the past 12 months—54% of Indians reported to having paid bribes.

Addressing corruption such as this is a huge challenge. It is mostly impervious to top-down regulatory quick fixes such as the Lok Pal Bill or mere changes in incentives. In fact, the premises behind Prof. Basu’s argument are similar to that of the mainstream debates on reducing harassment corruption. Let us briefly examine some of them.

To start with, bribe givers already have protection from any prosecution if they are able to establish that “the bribe was given unwillingly and in order to get the public servant trapped". Moreover, this protection is superfluous since bribe givers invariably work with the local anti-corruption agency to trap bribe-demanding officials. In any case, given the standards of proof required for any legal indictment, it is impossible for any prospective complaint by the bribe giver to be effective.

Second, such analysis is confined to the demand-side (bribe taker) and overlooks the critical role of the bribe giver. It needs to be borne in mind that corruption takes place because officials demand bribes and people are willing to pay a premium (over and above the minimal user charges) to access public services at their convenience. This willingness to pay is manifested either in the bribes paid by those applying for government services or the payments made to middlemen.

Third, such solutions simplify reality and give disproportionate importance to incentives, while overlooking the critical role of enforcement. For example, though evidence of corruption in government offices is part of the local gossip-who takes money, how much, through which channel, and so on-and anti-corruption agencies are well aware of this, they choose not to act unless prodded by specific complaints.

Fourth, reforming a system where deviance is the norm is a huge challenge. Standard models of addressing corruption work under the presumption that corrupt practices exist at the margins or are not widely prevalent. It is similarly assumed that enforcement is weak only at the margins.

However, when the practice is so widespread as to be a norm (as is the case with say, getting an income certificate or a passport) and enforcement agencies are overstretched, the marginal deterrence effect of regulations and incentives are negligible. The fear of being caught is mitigated by the bribe taker’s realization that his actions are no different from that of the majority of his colleagues.

Finally, citizens have to interact continuously with government officials. From a game theoretic framework, the bribe-giving citizen plays repeated games with his bribe-taking interlocutors and their partners. A bribe giver with a reputation for complaining, leave alone trapping officials, will be vulnerable to being harassed (or at least deeply inconvenienced) by the bribe-taking community. Therefore, prudence dictates that he plays the game, by “rules".

While, as mentioned earlier, there are no quick fixes to addressing such corruption, there may be some broad principles that can underpin any anti-corruption policy. First, minimize all interfaces between citizens and the government, this being the premier source of corrupt practices. Outsourced customer care centres, for all its flaws, are a major improvement on the current system of accessing services directly from government offices. Second, introduce competition in service delivery channels. The same service can be accessed and delivered through different offices within the same department and also through certified private agencies.

Finally, differential pricing of services are an excellent institutional mechanism to capture people’s willingness to pay (over and above the service fees). A simple dual-price arrangement-a higher fee premium for faster service to complement the citizen-charter based lower fee service-can align the incentives of all parties in the service delivery market.

All this has to be coupled with stronger enforcement and administrative commitment, use of the latest information and mobile communications technology to improve transparency and access, and context specific innovations that seek to alter the incentives of all parties in the service-delivery environment.

Gulzar Natarajan is a civil servant. These are his personal views

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