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Publication Date : 12-02-2013
India’s anti-corruption movement raised hopes of a better future, one in which a minister would not feel free to tell government officials it’s okay for them to “steal a little.” There was a belief that massive protests, the right Lokpal Bill, and Arvind Kejriwal uncovering enough scams would curb the use of public office for private gain.
Now that the uproar has died down, for perhaps a brief pause, it seems a good time to ask a simple question: Is a grand clean-up plausible? Means aside, is the ends attainable? Or is India just too poor, too Asian, too democratic, too big, too diverse--too Indian--to change?
India clearly has a corruption problem. On Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perception Index (CPI), which ranged from Denmark (1) to Somalia (174), India ranked 94th. In Transparency’s 2010 survey of 1,000 Indian urbanites, 54 per cent said they’d paid a bribe in the preceding year, more than twice the world average. And 74 per cent said corruption had worsened in the preceding three years.
But the belief in international organisations such as the World Bank that corruption is a key factor keeping developing countries from attracting investment and speeding economic growth has encouraged a wave of research on corruption. And this research suggests there’s nothing about India that locks it in the mire of corruption.
Some say India is too poor to be honest. True, some of the richest countries are among the least corrupt, but it’s not clear which way the causation runs. And the relationship isn’t consistent: Qatar is super-rich, but not super-clean; Rwanda is awfully poor, but isn’t commensurately corrupt.
Some say India is too democratic, but democracy per se doesn’t seem to have much to do with it. Many of the least corrupt countries are democracies, but non-democratic Singapore and Hong Kong are also among the cleanest. Some say the government’s deep involvement in the economy is an obstacle. In countries where civil servants monopolise fewer resources, they have less leverage to demand bribes. But the relationship isn’t ironclad: Bahrain and Mauritius are toppers in economic freedom according to the US-based Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, and they still have significant corruption problems.
There’s culture to consider, too. Some believe more traditional societies, which value hierarchy and family over individual rights, are more prone to corruption, or that countries where people feel they are just struggling to survive are likely to be more corrupt. For example, Rukshana Nanayakkara, who deals with the Asia-Pacific region for Transparency International, argues that a South Asian “mindset” is a major obstacle for anti-corruption efforts in India.
But researchers Ronald Inglehart and Chris Welzel, using data from the World Values Survey, rated countries on continuums from traditional-religious to rational-secular, and from survival-focused to self-expression-focused. Among the most traditional, survival-focused countries were Rwanda, Jordan and Ghana. They are not among the world’s most corrupt; there does not seem to be an ironclad link between traditional, survival-focused cultures and corruption.
Furthermore, corruption levels within India vary considerably, even among neighbouring states, points out Jennifer Bussell, a visiting professor at Yale University who is studying corruption in India and whose book Corruption and Reform in India was published last year by Cambridge University Press.
A 2010 survey by the Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies of 9,960 rural households in 12 states found that only 7.7 per cent of respondents in Andhra Pradesh reported paying bribes to get services in the previous year through the public distribution system; in Karnataka the figure was 39.2 per cent, in Kerala it was 12.2 per cent in Chhattisgarh it was 48.5 per cent.
This is not to say that culture has no effect on corruption, only that culture does not dictate corruption levels. The list of other corruption-related factors researchers have investigated rambles on and on: a free Press and independent judiciary are good; having been colonised by the British may be related to a lower level of corruption; economic transition like India’s post-1991 reforms or violent conflict can makes things worse.
In the end, it seems no single factor locks a country into corruption. A poor country where people are focused on survival can be honest. So can one with a traditional social structure, a government that meddles in the economy, flawed media, or politically controlled judges. It’s the full constellation that matters, and there are many ways the stars can align to keep corruption low. India’s corruption horoscope is not a lucky one, but there are countries with less promising indicators that aren’t as corrupt. And sure, India’s big, but so are China, Brazil and the US, which are all less corrupt, according to their CPI rankings.
In short, India has no excuse. None of its immutable characteristics make it corrupt or keep it that way. “It is not inevitable,” says Robert Klitgaard, a professor at Claremont Graduate University who advises governments on how to fight corruption. So how have other countries succeeded in fighting corruption while India has failed? And what can India learn from their experiences?
Let’s start with anti-corruption-studies pin-up Georgia. After that country’s 2003 Rose Revolution brought Mikheil Saakashvili to power there, it shot up Transparency’s CPI rankings from 85 of 102 countries (worse than India) to 51 of 179 (far better than India).
Saakashvili won the presidency in part because of Georgians’ disenchantment with corruption under the old regime. So when he took office, he quickly arrested several corrupt high-level officials. Then he fired all the traffic police--an underpaid, crooked force the public had to deal with every day--and rehired a smaller bunch, trained and tested to ensure they were clean. He overhauled the regular police, cut the number of public sector employees in half and raised their salaries 15-fold, simplified the tax code, cleaned up customs, and deregulated businesses.
By 2010, 78 per cent of respondents to a survey told Transparency that corruption had declined in the past three years in Georgia. Just 4 per cent said they’d paid a bribe in the past 12 months.
Despite its small population ~ there are only about 4.5 million people in the country--Georgia is perhaps a less promising place for fighting corruption than India. It’s similar in terms of GDP per capita, its residents are more focused on survival, it’s less democratic, and its judges are less independent. Corruption there is not completely wiped-out, and some argue that petty bribery may have waned, but big ticket misuse of funds continues--but that’s still a major improvement.
Rwanda is another interesting case. Inglehart and Welzel found that Rwandans were more traditional than Indians. The country is also poorer and less democratic, and its Press and judges are less independent. Nevertheless, Rwanda climbed from 83rd of 158 countries in 2005’s CPI (similar to India’s position at 88 that year) to 50th of 174 in 2012’s. India, meanwhile, sunk to 94th. As in Georgia, Rwanda’s reforms were essentially driven by one man: President Paul Kagame. First as Vice-President after 1994’s genocide and then, since 2000, as President, he pushed anti-corruption reforms.
The Rwandan government brought in new laws criminalising attempted corruption, extortion, bribery and money-laundering. The number of public servants was slashed, judges sacked, and powerful bodies set up to audit the public sector.
Other notable anti-corruption successes include Singapore and Hong Kong, which fought the scourge and won in the 20th century, and the Philippines and Indonesia, which are still mired in the muck, but making progress, in the 21st century. One of the main lessons of Georgia, Rwanda and the other cases is that effective change tends to come from the top. (Another is that anti-corruption crusaders often cast aside democratic and human rights norms).
It is not enough to create new anti-corruption institutions, or reform existing institutions, if there isn’t the political will at the top of the government backing up such well-meaning measures. To beat back corruption, India needs a fresh, untainted leader with the quiet persistence of Manmohan Singh, zeal of Mamata Banerjee, and ruthlessness of Indira Gandhi, at the head of a government that’s not hobbled by intra-coalition politics.
Once in office, this leader should start with a “big bang” reform, dramatically overhauling a corrupt institution that annoys Indians every day, so they can see and feel the change. The institution should be chosen to ensure a win: in Georgia, the traffic police were a good target; in Pakistan, the military would be a bad one.
Corruption is an economic crime, Klitgaard points out. So reforms should be designed to change the incentives for corrupt practices, increasing the risk, and reducing the payoff. Government monopolies should be broken, officials’ decision-making discretion should be curtailed, and their accountability should be increased. After the leader builds momentum and creates a media narrative that the era of corruption is over, it will be time to tackle the tougher targets.
So, instead of sitting at Jantar Mantar and vaguely calling on politicians and bureaucrats to act morally or pass some special Bill, anti-corruption campaigners should use the democratic process to bring to power a leader with the will to make the necessary changes. India may now be ripe for such a leader--and not only because of public exasperation with governmental corruption.
It wasn’t just public discontent and political calculation that drove Saakashvili and Kagame to reforms. Their countries were broke and needed foreign investment on a scale that doesn’t flow to countries as corrupt as they were. India, some would say, is heading towards a similar position.
Kapila is an editorial consultant with The Statesman and Tranum is a freelance journalist.