Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Saving India from the corrupt

Corruption in India is a form of terrorism


From The Statesman

Economic growth averaging 8.5 per cent during the last five years made us forget about corruption and crime in India. So it was very refreshing to read what former President APJ Abdul Kalam said recently. “My message to you is this: A corruption-free constituency (means a) corruption-free Karnataka. A corruption-free India is possible. Will MLAs of Karnataka lead the way?” he said, while addressing Karnataka’s legislators.

Ordinary Indians, the hoi polloi, pay bribes of about $5 billion (Rs 21,068 crore) a year in order to avail of “one or more of the 11 public services in a year” according to a 2005 Centre for Media Studies/Transparency India Report. Can you imagine how much “extra-ordinary Indians”, those who breakfast in New York, lunch in London and dine in Mumbai, must be paying to speed up their business deals? Corruption is endemic both in the Indian polity and the bureaucracy. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index ranks India 72 out of 179 countries.

Asking the lawmakers to be “a friend, philosopher and guide to every family in their constituency”, Mr Kalam said, “Your mission should be to free your constituency from poverty and crime and ensure the dignity of every human being.” The message, though aimed at Karnataka’s new ruling party, the BJP, some of whose members are associated with the Hindu right, is the need of the moment, especially when Indians have become pre-occupied with terrorism. Internal terrorism is called insurgency, whether it is by Northeast separatists or by faux Maoists, and it has a strong correlation with corruption and crime. Corruption, crime and insurgency go together. “Criminals as lawmakers” is unique to Indian democracy.

India’s pace of globalisation from economic growth and foreign trade to piracy, terrorism and even movies like Slumdog Millionaire has raised expectations, revealing India’s strength as well as its weaknesses. So it is not surprising when I come across a person asking a question such as: If Indian economists are so smart ~ look at Professor Amartya Sen, Union Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, et al ~ can they help India get out of the global financial trouble? My quick answer is that corruption has bogged India down. Of course, some blame the socialist political economists of the post-independence generation who believed that a bad car made in India was a sign of self-reliance.
It is true to some extent that protectionism and buddy capitalism of the socialist era proved a poor substitute for the challenge and response of the competition of the marketplace.Initially, as the legend goes, the foreign exchange crisis of the early 1990s forced India to open up its doors to market economy.

But India was pushed into globalisation by the information revolution that had begun to sweep the world. The other India, its diaspora, especially in the IT field, began to show its unusual ingenuity for developing new products and services as well as for solving complicated problems, including killing the millennium bug.

Bangalore was able to lift off in spite of its poor infrastructure and in the process transformed itself into a cyberspace module that expertly docked with the emerging digital universe, partly thanks to Indian satellite technology, which was paradoxically developed during the era of self-reliance.While the spectacular success of Bangalore and IT showed how much the Indian tinkerer could do for the world, at the same time it exposed India’s vulnerabilities ~ its sluggish rural economy, massive shortfalls in investment for infrastructure development, more than 300 million illiterate people, and a high rate of underemployed and unemployed people.

The world began to look at India’s underside, miles of slums and millions of malnourished children, and the exposure has challenged Indian scruples and sensibilities. Indian policymakers and intellectuals began to grapple with the problem of economic growth, but they did not pay attention to the culture of corruption, the yoke on the poor.

The optimism created by IT and other industries cannot be sustained unless India develops the political will to clean its stables. What will make politicians and bureaucrats more accountable and responsive to public needs? Individuals who exercise political power should be made answerable for not only the way they use the power vested in them but also whether they achieve their goals with clean hands. Perhaps India needs a minister of corruption, who should build a network of whistleblowers. Sadly, the news media has not been playing the watchdog role essential for a healthy democracy.

Of course some problems are systemic and need structural changes. Poverty reduction depends on the rate of economic growth and how widespread and decentralised economic opportunities are. The system as a whole has to be geared for growth, which means the development of a grand national strategy that covers every region. Blooming Gujarat and gloomy Bihar (and the Northeast) cannot be part of the same country.The burden of corruption is ultimately borne by the poor in India.

The source of corruption is unaccounted exercise of power, and of course, a sleepy kowtowing press. Elected officials can be removed, though one might say disdainfully, only to be replaced by another crop of corrupt people. But democracies do have methods of dealing with corrupt people in high places if the rule of law is enforced.

Public accountability through news media exposes and merciless investigative reporting, especially through Internet blogging and television, as the American experience shows, is a strong antidote to corruption. Secondly, well-regulated and carefully crafted privatisation might reduce corruption because it takes power away from bureaucrats and gives it to entrepreneurs and corporate leaders. But they too can, as happens in the US, abuse power.

But if laws are enforced rigorously, the corrupt will find their well-deserved place in jails as many American chief executive officers have discovered.India will need more than Mr Kalam’s exhortation to eliminate corruption in public life. Corruption is a terrible form of terrorism; it is always there.

(ND Batra is professor of communicationsat Norwich University)

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