The Centre for Media Studies, which provides research for informed decision making, has teamed up with the Transparency International India to study the experience of corruption among India’s poor, or the so-called below the poverty line (BPL) households, when they engage with public services. The survey, which was formally released on Saturday, found that one in three poor people had to pay bribes to access these services. It is the first time that a survey of this magnitude — with a sample size of 23,000 for all of India — is being done. Bhaskara Rao, chairman of of the Centre for Media Studies and a social scientist, spoke to Mint about highlights of the survey and how corruption needs to be tackled if India’s growth is to be inclusive. This is the second year Mint is providing extensive multi-day coverage of what has become India’s most comprehensive look at corruption. Edited excerpts:

Why do this study?

This is not the first time that we are studying corruption. It will be the fifth study on corruption since 2001. In this way, we have developed a methodology. For instance, often everything is claimed as corruption. That is not true; there is lot of exaggeration. Unless you are able to pinpoint corruption, you will not be able to do something about it; take action against it. So our main objective is to be able to identify these specific points, identify who is responsible for it and develop further

Initiator: Bhaskara Rao says that RTI has immense potential to fight corruption but people lack awareness. Photograph: Ramesh Pathania / Mint.

Is it the first time that any study is looking at the issue of corruption faced by people living below the poverty line?

No. We have been doing estimates for the last four years. Earlier, we had concentrated only on BPL families. We did so is because the government expenditure on programmes for the poor is really high. How much of that is really reaching people is what we wanted to know. There are sectional studies on services such as public distribution system or the NREGS (National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme). What we did is take a set of services used by BPL families. This is the first time that such an effort has been made. Also, the magnitude of the study is high in two ways: The sample size is 23,000 and is for the entire country. In this respect it is unique.

In other words, schemes such as the NREGS are not reaching the people?

One limitation of this study is that we don’t cover leakages that happen elsewhere. We have focused on the citizen interface level. It does not cover the leakages or higher-level corruption.

Does the study throw up any surprises that challenge popular perception about certain states in the country?

Yes. When we did our last study, we found Himachal Pradesh to be the least corrupt. This study confirms this finding. But, it also brings out that states, such as Chhattisgarh, which many believe to be very corrupt, is not as corrupt as Tamil Nadu in some services. For example, take drinking water. Tamil Nadu is the most corrupt state. Even we were surprised by the initial results. We sent a special team and further sub-sampled the original sample and found that it was correct. Similarly, we scrutinized primary education in Himachal Pradesh very closely because we found that there was no corruption. If this model is adopted by other states, then it could change the face of education in this country.

Popular notion is that liberalization would do away with controls and thereby reduce corruption...

Eventually that will happen. Liberalization is bound to reduce corruption. We looked at this issue in our last study when we studied the privatization experience with electricity in some cities. There has definitely been improvement in the service decline in corruption at the citizen interface level. Similarly, wherever there has been computerization at the front-end of offices, the corruption level at the citizen interface level has come down.

But, when it comes to BPL, the situation is slightly different. Because the first beneficiaries of computerization are those who have a better level of education. Also, computerization has not addressed the unique needs of the BPL families; they can’t provide details such as when they were born. And, if you make this a precondition for enrolment, then this will not work with BPL families.

What has been the response, particularly from the Centre and the state governments, to the findings of your various corruption surveys?

It has been mixed. Overall, it has not been very encouraging. That is why this year we have tied up with Transparency International India such that this report is taken to the grassroots and discussed by civil society groups. It has been our past experience that wherever you have civil society groups, it will have some impact. Research by itself is not an end. It is the beginning. So Transparency International will take up one programme in every district.

Assuming there are 300 million poor in this country, what would be their per capita spending on bribes?

It would be about Rs400 per person in the BPL category. It varies from service to service. For example, all BPL families will avail of police services. Wherever the services availed are greater, then greater the per capita spending (on bribes). A lot of people have argued that this sum is low. For the poorest of the poor this is big money. What we are studying is that: what Rs2,000 means to an urbanite is the same as Rs20 for someone living in Bastar (in Chhattisgarh).

Has the Right to Information (RTI) Act helped the poor fight off corruption?

The first thing is that the RTI Act has immense potential. This survey brings this out. The problem is that the awareness is not there. The government has made no effort whatsoever to make this awareness; neither has any state government done so.