Subcontinental sleaze


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MY father’s most embarrassing moments abroad occurred in London in the summer of 1974. England had piled up 629 runs in the first innings of the Lord’s Test. Ajit Wadekar’s India replied with 302, and were asked to follow on. Then, on a damp, overcast and windy 24 June, India collapsed for 42 runs in 17 overs. Eknath Solkar was the top scorer at 18. Arnold took four wickets for 19 runs in eight overs, and Old five for 21 in eight. Everywhere my father went that afternoon, he was greeted by exceedingly polite queries about the health of Indian cricket. It was Blighty condescension at its most sophisticated. Decades later, the old man still remembers the pinpricks of that day.

India’s ignominy on 24 June 1974 was at the playing field. My embarrassment abroad was significantly worse. In Washington DC in the first week of March 2001, I was basking in the reflected glory of Yashwant Sinha’s excellent budget. It was heady stuff to nod sagaciously as the World Bank and IMF experts praised the budget, and hear them say that India was at last on track with its so-called ‘second generation’ reforms. Suddenly, out of the blue, Tehelka broke.

For the next three days, virtually every person I met asked one sniggering question, ‘Omkar, your politicians take bribes as little as $2,200?’ As a good subcontinent smarty, I soon devised a clever ‘people-like-us’ self-deprecating riposte: ‘Listen, don’t even try to convert that amount in dollars. It’s piddly stuff even in rupees. Most people you and I know wouldn’t cross the street for one lakh.’ But it hurt – much more than it did my father in 1974.

Since then, I have started thinking on why so many people stooped so low – from Rs 10,000 and gold chains, to a lakh or two. South Asia certainly has no monopoly over corruption. Real big-time, deep pocket scandals have been unearthed in many developed countries with significantly greater per capita incomes. But there is something about South Asia that makes it a fertile ground for pervasive, low-level corruption, in addition to big ticket items like Bofors and the rest. I haven’t been able to set up a complete story – a grand unified theory of subcontinental sleaze. It is doubtful whether such a theory can be framed and, if so, pass the muster of facts. Even so, there are facets of corruption in India and Pakistan that are well worth examining.

The first comment is that corruption tends to be recursive in a self-fulfilling way. As most citizens of Delhi know, four out of five autorickshaws have rigged meters. The methods are simple. The more brazen bribe the Transport Authority to seal the meter with a marginally smaller gear – one that makes more revolutions and tots a higher tariff for every kilometre. Meeker drivers deflate the tyre a bit and achieve a similar purpose. Any customer who routinely travels a fixed route knows perfectly well whether a meter is rigged or not. When challenged, most autorickshaw drivers say, ‘Arrey bhai, aapko to malum hi hai. Jo dena hai de do.’ Note, no explicit admission of guilt, but a healthy acknowledgement of the passenger’s superior domain knowledge.

However, woe-betide the irate passenger who decides to berate the driver about decline in public morality. The reply is immediate, harsh and invariably as follows: ‘Jab Narasimha Rao suitcase leta thha, tab koi chillaya thha kya? Kaunse neta ne ghoos bandh kiya? Jab koi crore-o rupaiye kamate hain, tab sab kuchh theek rahta hai. Jab ek garib kamata hai, tab bhashan shuru! Faltu bakhwaas karte ho!’ There is hugely recursive morality play in this diatribe. Who the hell are you to berate me, a poor autorickshaw driver, for making an extra 10 per cent on a daily income of less than Rs 500? What am I compared to the big fish? And if they can rake in several crores, why are you spouting morality on my few extra rupees?



Many of us have come across this justification on more than one occasion. The actor in question can be a Delhi autorickshaw driver, a ticket checker on trains, a traffic policeman, or an MTNL clerk. If called to justify their relatively trivial graft, they invariably refer to wider, more pervasive and substantially more lucrative arenas of corruption. And nothing can be more convenient than political graft to justify its far tinier quasilumpen brethren.

The second comment relates to the pervasive nature of South Asian corruption – virtually any activity that involves some administrative power or discretion can be leveraged for bribes. Much of it is in the nature of speed money. Typically, the opportunity cost of time for most working people is greater than the state’s. This asymmetry is further skewed by the way government authorities create mechanisms to deliver most regulatory services. For instance, it can take as much as half a working day to get a new driving licence – which sets the stage for most of us to pay touts a few hundred rupees to get the job done.

Such examples abound. Anything between 10 and 20 per cent of a clearing agent’s fees is graft that has to be doled out at various stages of the game. And it has absolutely nothing to do with breaking the law. I remember returning to India after my PhD. My worldly belongings consisted of some 300 books, old clothes, 200-odd cassettes and a three-year old sound system. The goods were to be cleared at the Kidderpore docks in Calcutta. Much to his chagrin, I chose to accompany the clearing agent for two consecutive days. In the process, I saw Rs 10 notes placed by the agent in opened desk drawers as the customarily determined price for signatures.

Occasionally, there are humorous sideshows to speed money, and I remember one on the Bally Bridge, which spans the Hooghly between Dakhsineswar and Uttarpara. Every truck – whether overloaded or not – slowed down at the approach to the bridge, gave the customary bribe of Rs 5 to the police, and then trundled along. I was driving behind one such truck, and the cop missed holding on to the note as it fluttered from the driver’s cab. In a trice, my driver leapt out of the car, coolly pocketed the fiver, and drove past the dumbfounded cop.



The third comment is that most instances of graft in South Asia have little or no connection with any obvious crime on the part of the giver. I am referring to the frequency of grafts, and not their value. The matter is simple enough. The babus who are supposed to deliver a service to citizens as a matter of course delibera tely choose to do so at speeds that are unacceptable to most. Thus, what ought to be available in an hour is structured in a way so that it takes two days. An otherwise honest person now faces a dilemma. Should he refuse to pay, and get his normal course of work held up for that long? Or should he pay a relatively small sum of money for a service that he ought to have got in an hour as a matter of course? Purists abhor the latter option. To them, the act of acquiescing is a crime. Fair enough. But do think of a large number of honest people who are running small businesses. Can they afford this morality?



Will this petty, speed money-type corruption stop in the foreseeable future? Very unlikely. Irrespective of economic reforms – second generation or otherwise – the state will continue to play a substantial role in a person’s daily life. We will still need birth certificates, affidavits, driving licences, passports, car registration certificates, house and land records, all the way to death certificates. Each of these activities involves interfacing with some government department and, notwithstanding Chandrababu Naidu’s efforts at E-governance, I don’t see the market for speed money disappearing in a hurry.

My fourth comment is about punishment. The subcontinent is a region that is extremely lax about punishing wrongdoers – and it is justified by the phrase, ‘Law will take its own course.’ Unfortunately, the course that law takes is so long and meandering, that the power of punishment loses all meaning. Take Harshad Mehta. The stock market scam occurred in 1992. He is still a free bird. Or Bofors, which has become such a monumental bore. Or, for that matter, the illustrious Nandas of Golf Links, who could race their BMW over the supine bodies of poor people, wash the blood off the bumper and remain scot-free.

It is this total lack of swift and effective punishment that creates a hierarchy of corruption. Among the babus, perhaps the most venal departments are Income Tax, Sales Tax, Excise and Customs. When was the last time a cohort of corrupt officials from these departments swiftly convicted and put behind bars for a long enough time to give a clear signal that society won’t tolerate corruption? The consequence of non-punishment is obvious. Everyone knows that corruption pays, and it is only the crazy that choose to remain honest. Every crook knows what the other does; they protect each other, and make life miserable for honest officers who want to go by the book. Given such rampant corruption, it makes eminent sense for the taxpayers to be likewise. As we well know, the equilibrium bribe rate is always significantly less than the tax plus penalty rate.



If punishment is rare for the babus, it is non-existent for our politicians. Criminals become Members of Parliament – just look at more than half a dozen MPs from Bihar and you know what I am talking about. Madam Jayalalitha can cock a snook at the cases where she was convicted and re-occupy her regal position at Fort St. George as the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. Politicians can incite communal violence and remain free. And graft is hardly the stuff that can imprison a neta. He is too big to be jailed for accepting bribes. The only cases that come up are in the nature of political vendetta – raised when a neta is out of power, only to be consigned to the dustbin when s(he) returns to the gaddi. Have we ever seen the prosecuting authorities ever launch a case against a politician when his party is in power, however strong the prima facie evidence of graft may be?

My fifth comment relates to corruption and economic development. There is an argument that I have heard many times over, and it goes thus: Most, if not all of our corruption stems from the licence-control-permit raj. Ergo, the more we liberalise, the less corrupt we shall be. Facts don’t back up this hypothesis – at least upto the present point of the subcontinent’s economic development. No one can deny that the ambit of administrative fiats has reduced between 1991 and 2001. But there isn’t a shred of evidence to prove that corruption has gone down. Indeed, many will argue the opposite. With liberalisation, the pie has increased and the stakes have become greater. And that there are enough controls at key decision-making points to squeeze even greater juice for granting an approval.



Does it mean that there is no inverse relationship between economic development and corruption? Far from it. If we plot an index of people’s perception of corruption against per capita GDP, we will find that the developed, high income OECD countries have very low indices of corruption. But there is, I suspect, a distinct discontinuity. Nothing much happens to reduce corruption upto an income of something like $2,500 to $3,000 per capita. At around that stage, national level institutions come into being that have very low tolerance for corruption. These institutions continue to strengthen as per capita income grows and, in the process, corruption declines over time.

Thus, we have two clusters, each with their odd exceptions: pervasively corrupt countries with low to lower-middle per capita incomes, and largely non-corrupt ones with high per capita incomes. India, with a per capita income of $450 has a long way to go. If comfort be desired, so has China with $800.

Finally, let’s laugh a bit about the moral economy of corruption – and it has to do with the subcontinental male’s dichotomous attitude towards women. About a decade ago, a friend was going abroad for a few years. In those days (maybe even today), if you were travelling on a one-way ticket, you needed to present a ‘No Objection Certificate’ from the Income Tax Department to the immigration authorities at the time of embarkation. More often than not the immigration officers couldn’t be bothered.



But my risk averse Tamil Brahmin friend was not about to break any rules. So he and his wife went with a chartered accountant-qua-tout to the Income Tax Office in Delhi to get their NOCs. The officer had a very simple proposition, which ran thus: ‘Both of you have paid taxes. But you are now going to a country where you’ll earn much more money. Unless I certify that you have paid taxes and issue you a NOC, you can’t go. Surely, Rs 1,000 as a token of friendship is nothing for you.’ All this said sotto voce and out of earshot of my friend’s wife.

My friend was about to blow a fuse, but was cooled down by the so-called chartered accountant. Two days away from departure and not knowing anyone senior enough in the Income Tax Department, he finally decided that shelling out was the better part of valour. As he was counting out ten hundred rupee notes, the income tax officer lost his shirt. ‘Aap kya kar rahe hain? Bahar aiye!’ said he. Perplexed, my friend went out to the corridor accompanied by his wife. Immediately came the response, ‘Madam ko andhar baithney ko kahiye.’ So, madam stayed inside; ITO, friend and tout went to an empty part of the corridor; ITO took his Rs 1,000; and guess what he said? ‘Aap ko malum hona chaiye ki hum aisa business ladies ke samne nahin karte hain.’

Maybe the moral is: to reduce corruption, get more women out in the open. Or, seeing Jayalalitha and Sasikala, maybe not.