Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Combating Corruption

Social activist Anna Hazare is on a fast-unto-death. This fighter against corruption  (he is the founder of the Bhrashtachar Virodhi Jan Aandolan who returned his Padmashri award because the Maharashtra government did not take action against corrupt forest officials) and campaigner for the Right to Information Act wants the government to start work to enact a Jan Lokpal Bill. Apparently, close to 150 people have joined in, according to one newspaper report.
So why am I not impressed? And why am I amused when a newspaper says the fast has galvanised the nation's fight against corruption?
What fight, I want to know.
I live in a middle class locality of Delhi built by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA). DDA rules don't permit water tanks of more than 500 litres per flat on the terrace. Yet in the block I live in and in countless DDA flats across Delhi, people have installed 1000 litre tanks, endangering the structural stability of flats. Complaints are made, officials come to inspect and go away richer by a few hundreds or thousands. Unauthorised constructions abound, pavements have been encroached upon for gardens, motors installed on main water lines. In each case, ordinary middle class people - perfectly decent and respectable otherwise - have paid bribes so that they can flout the law.
When I was renovating my then recently acquired flat four years ago, a neighbour asked me if we could jointly build an extra room. I was agreeable till I found it was against the rules. When I mentioned this to his aged mother, she said, `don't worry, my son will take care of payment to the DDA officials. You don't have to talk to them." I put my foot down and said nothing doing.
These are the very same people who express shock at the various multi-crore scams our politicians and bureaucrats are involved in and rail against corruption in high places. They will praise Anna Hazare and maybe even go to see him. And when they are driving back, they will jump a red light and bribe the traffic cop.
Middle class people think it is okay for them to indulge in minor corruption but not for politicians to do the same on a grander scale. I had touched upon this in an earlier article, Morality of Middle Class Politics, where I had drawn a distinction between bribes that one is forced to give (to get perfectly legal things done) and the bribes that one gives willingly to do something that is patently illegal (unauthorised constructions and disobeying traffic rules, for example).
I feel it is possible to resist bribe demands of the first kind as well. After all, how long can someone hold back a death/birth/marriage certificate (believe me, this still happens) or an income tax refund or a completion certificate for a building.
Former chief justice of the Himachal Pradesh High Court, Leela Seth, in her book A Fine Balance, relates the incident about how an inspector in Noida kept delaying a completion certificate for her house, hinting at a bribe. Finally he came to her house and denied the certificate because some column was a couple of inches smaller than the rules permitted. There was again a hint of a bribe to ignore this. Seth spent far more than what a bribe would have cost her to get the column redone. Still the inspector delayed her certificate by over a year.
This may not be a practical option for many. I know a recent case where a newly-married couple had to pay a bribe to get their marriage certificate because the bride had to appear for a visa interview with the certificate. I pride myself on never having bribed but if I was in their position would I have been able to stick to my moral high ground?
But what about bribes paid for what are known to be illegal actions? Are people who pay these petty bribes any better than the politicians involved in mega-scams? I don't think so.
Also, political parties tend to make corruption an election issue? But is it an issue for the electorate at all? Known corrupt people keep getting elected all the time. Not in the badlands of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar but everywhere. Both the DMK and the AIADMK regimes in Tamil Nadu have always been marked by corruption. Yet one or the other party keeps getting elected.
Anna Hazare may succeed in getting the kind of Lokpal Bill he wants. But will that stop people from electing corrupt politicians to legislatures? Will that stop people from offering bribes for an extra floor or room that is not permitted, for flouting some rule that is based on logic and safety concerns?
Denying oneself of food is not going to stop corruption. Denying oneself some comforts that can be got only through bribes is the only way to fight it.

1 comment:

pmathur said...

Very well written and very apt at this moment.
Best Wishes,
Puneet