Corruption and injustice


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‘Those who reproach injustice do so because they are afraid not of doing it but of suffering it.’

– Plato, Republic, I.344c.

‘Corruption is a mere symptom: the disease is unbridled greed.’

– Kobad Ghandy, Maoist leader, currently in Tihar jail

CURIOUSLY, corruption that was long taken as a way of life in India has suddenly become a big issue. Thanks in part to the electronic media, which is spiritedly exposing a scam-a-day kind of series of scandals, corruption has been hogging the limelight, evoking tremendous indignation among the middle classes who think it is the biggest obstacle in their imagining India as world superpower. Hardly surprising that they massively support the agitation launched under the leadership of Anna Hazare to institute an effective mechanism to arrest high level corruption. Although this agitation effectively distracted attention from the core issues of corruption to mechanisms to deal with it, the issue is still alive. The entire discourse of corruption, however, appears to be driven by a neo-liberal perspective of development and efficiency. An alternative perspective, that corruption essentially entails injustice to a majority of people, remains marginal, both in the intellectual discourse as well as in anti-corruption actions.

This paper focuses on the subaltern perspective that corruption essentially entails injustice,a feature usually absent in the development and efficiency arguments against corruption. Next, the incidence of injustice is explored through the process of ‘so called’ development to demonstrate the vacuity of arguments based on the development and efficiency perspective. Finally, two empirical cases representing perhaps two ends of a spectrum are presented to illustrate the argument developed in the paper.

Most definitions of corruption highlight ‘misuse of public power for private profit’,1 ‘act of bribery’ involving a public servant and a transfer of tangible resources,2 ‘betrayal of public trust’, and ‘violation of established rules for personal gain.’3

The Oxford English Dictionary categorizes various meanings of corruption as follows: (i) physical: the destruction or spoiling of anything, especially by disintegration or by decomposition with its attendant unwholesomeness and loathsomeness, (ii) moral: moral deterioration or decay; perversion or destruction of integrity in the discharge of public duties by bribery or favour, (iii) the perversion of anything from an original state of purity.4 The definition of corruption as ‘abuse’ (or misuse) of ‘public power’ (public office, public role, or public duties and resources) for ‘private gain’ (personal gain, private profit, or private benefit) is most frequently used.


These definitions assume that corruption is a phenomenon in the ‘public’ sphere or at the intersection of ‘public’ and ‘private’ spaces. They consider corruption as a symptom that undermines the fairness and legitimacy of the state, which in turn impairs its capacity for development. But these are myopic views relying either on the state as a genuine agent of development or on the moral anchoring of the private sector. Neither is necessarily true. Though abuse of private power is a prime mover of corruption, it is inexplicably excluded from the corruption discourse. Surely, we are not unaware of the many instances of corruption in the university, the corporation, the labour union, the media, the banks, and the church – all parts of the private sector.5

Nevertheless, in a corrupt transaction between a public official and a client, it is only the public official who is regarded as corrupt, while the client who uses private resources to bribe him is not regarded as such. As a matter of fact, the private sector represents ‘private gain’ in all definitions of corruption. The private sector is not confined to its corrupting role but could as well be corrupted. However, corruption in the private sector has rarely been studied by social scientists.6 Although ordinary people as well as mass media commonly use words like ‘corporate corruption’, scholars usually use terms like ‘business ethics’, thus avoiding the word ‘corruption’ vis-à-vis the private sector.


These definitions mostly revolve around the function and dysfunction of corruption, implicitly concerned with efficiency and/or economic development. The moralistic arguments highlight the dysfunctionality of corruption7 and infer that corruption is bad. Others focus on the functionality of corruption,8 indicating that corruption can even be good or morally neutral. This moralists and functionalists, however, only reflects their pragmatic considerations regarding development. While much of the expert commentary talks of corruption as obstructing the prospects of development and thus anti-people, what people perceive is exactly the opposite. For them, development is the real fountainhead of corruption and is in turn the source of injustice. The bane of the prevalent corruption discourse is that there is not the slightest allusion to corruption being as such.


Corruption as an abuse of power is a breach of ‘formal justice’ and a violation of ‘obligations of fairness’ by individuals for their private gain within the framework of social justice as developed by John Rawls.9 This framework basically deals with the problem of distributive justice by utilizing a variant of the familiar device of the social contract. The resultant theory is known as ‘Justice as Fairness’, from which Rawls derives his two famous principles of justice – the liberty principle: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others10 and the difference principle: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged such that (a) they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society and (b) offices and positions must be open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.11 Further, Rawls differentiates between two types of justice: substantive justice that refers to the rules of an institution, and formal justice that refers to the actions of the individuals who implement those rules. Although Rawls foregrounds substantive justice, corruption is equally about formal justice that limits discretion and arbitrary decision-making to ensure equality before the law. If an institution is reasonably just, then it is of great importance that the authorities should be impartial and not be influenced by personal, monetary, or other irrelevant considerations in their handling of particular cases.

Although corruption is concerned with formal justice, insofar as it is actualized through the governing ethos of society, the influence of its historical institutions that shaped the ethos cannot be ignored. Nowhere is this better seen than in India where institutions characterized by caste, sans any pretention to substantive justice, continue to have an abiding influence on the behaviour of people, despite their formal replacement by formally egalitarian constitutional institutions. It is this behaviour that has primarily subverted the principle of substantive justice underlying the Indian Constitution.


Scholars have discerned at least three conditions which are necessary for corruption to arise and persist – (i) discretionary power: the relevant public official must possess the authority to design or administer regulations and policies in a discretionary manner; (ii) economic rent: the discretionary power must allow extraction of (existing) rents or creations of rents that can be extracted; and (iii) weak institutions: the incentive embodied in political, administrative and legal institutions must be such that officials are left with an incentive to exploit their discretionary power to extract or create rents.12 The fact that despite a reasonably elaborate formal institutional structure, India outranks many countries in corruption can only be explained by an abiding ethos of rent seeking deeply entrenched in its socio-cultural institutions.13 Even as this ethos was weakening through constant contention with formal institutions, the advent of neo-liberalism with its social Darwinist proclivities gave it a boost, creating the widespread phenomenon of corruption that we face today.


Unlike the moralistic view of corruption as evil, a neo-liberal perspective views corruption as the ‘grease’ that makes the wheels of the economic growth machine turn more smoothly. It attributes efficiency to corruption in facilitating ‘beneficial trade between agents that would otherwise have not been possible’ and promoting ‘allocative efficiency by allowing agents in the private sector to correct pre-existing government failures.’14

The economic growth mania that has gripped the global elites during the past few decades has been directly responsible for producing a galloping growth in corruption. This era, rightly characterized as ‘accumulation by dispossession’15 or ‘predatory capitalism’16 or ‘neo-colonialism’,17 cumulatively reveals the basic motives of the governing elites in whatever they do. The development projects, though undertaken in the name of the people, are more the means of elite accumulation and for serving the needs of their opulent lifestyles. It is as if the development projects are designed only to facilitate corruption and entrench an unjust system.

How corruption and injustice are inseparable may best be grasped through empirical cases. We will consider two cases: one representing the daily lives of dalits in rural areas, suffering all-pervasive petty corruption and second, a macro instance of corruption which, though not directly related to any segment of the people, indirectly results in monumental injustice to them.


A family of four, father (50), mother (45), son (18) and a daughter (21), belonging to a Mang (dalit) caste in a village in Beed district of Maharashtra, lived as bonded labour in a hut built on the farm of a landlord belonging to the Vanzara caste (a backward farming caste). A son of the landlord approached the girl for sexual favours but she did not respond. One day, he along with his friends, beat up the labourer’s son for having stolen something. When the family comes to his rescue, everybody is beaten up. Even the girl is beaten up and sexually molested. The family approaches the police, but instead of recording their complaint, detain the girl and her brother based on the complaint by the landlord’s son. Obviously the police were heavily bribed. The parents beg for the release of their children. The police demand Rs 20000 as a bribe. The family manages Rs 16000 by borrowing from relatives and others and pays the police. They release the boy and girl.

The family then goes to a dalit politician in Beed and narrates their plight. He takes them to the police station and a case is registered under the IPC, but not under the Atrocity Act. Enraged by the temerity of his Mang ‘slaves’, the landlord’s son comes in an inebriated state with his goons to the farm. They attack the father and son with swords, badly beat up the mother, and drag the girl to an isolated spot and rape her. Some village people come to their rescue and they are taken to the police station. The police simply note the case in the police diary and they are taken to the government hospital in Beed, a half hour drive away.


For the next half an hour they lie bleeding on the floor in hospital verandah without anyone attending to them. The police complaint and other procedures are cited as an alibi for not attending to them. Only after bribing the hospital staff are they taken in for treatment. While the boy survives, the father dies. The girl is also examined and treated. With the help of the same politician, a police case is registered and the five named people, including the son of the landlord, are arrested. After a few days, they are released on bail, allegedly after paying a heavy bribe, shared by the police, public prosecutor and even the judge. The social worker also demands Rs 5000 for miscellaneous expense. Although completely broke, the mother, who now lives on the outskirts of Beed, is resolutely pursuing the case in the court. She was offered a hefty sum to withdraw the case, but has refused.

This case verily illustrates the pervasive corruption in the society which is homomorphous with the injustice common people suffer. To the extent that it represents structural injustice, it brings into question the lack of substantive justice, but additionally points to the concurrent violation of formal justice as a result of systemic corruption. Though India had legislated the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act in 1976, but even today, the practice of bonded labour is rampant, not only in rural areas but also in our cities.

A large number of children continue to be employed as bonded labourers by the non-farming sectors like small-scale textiles, firecrackers, leather goods manufacturing, brick kilns, granite extraction units, restaurants, eateries, organized begging and even in the sex trade everywhere. Is the ‘law’ of any value to this family? The Bonded Labour Act, the Scheduled Caste Atrocity Act, the Minimum Wages Act and the many other laws that were violated on an ongoing basis, failed to afford any protection to the family. Nor was the Indian Penal Code of any use to them. In fact, the law in pursuit of justice at times ends up doing more harm than good. The victim is repeatedly abused by power and authority, not because of the monetary bribes (which they paid in any case), but by the systemic injustice of caste and socio-economic status. Obviously, for countless dalit families like this one, the fight for justice cannot be seen within the prism of an anti-corruption law.


Thanks to widespread corruption within the law enforcement agencies, this system like many of its ilk, remains unscathed. The root of the devastating injustice suffered by the family lies in this pervasive corruption. The major reason for the persistent growth in caste atrocities despite a plethora of protective laws for dalits, reflects the corruption of the state machinery. Every major case of atrocity illustrates how a system imbued with bribes enables upper caste elements to commit heinous crimes against dalits.

Take the cases of mega corruption such as the 2G or CWG (Commonwealth Games) scams, which are currently under investigation under the direct supervision of the Supreme Court. Looking at the nature of these cases, it does appear that every other major programme in the country too may have had some degree of corruption; just that it did not get exposed. It does not need to be a big project or programme; every decision that involves a discretionary space entails corruption. One is awed by the size of these scams, but it is a common belief that many politicians, multiply personal wealth at a rate that would shame even the best investment banker in the world and that many bureaucrats with modest salary amass wealth that might last several generations.


There is no questioning of this pervasive corruption. India, despite its spectacular growth since the adoption of economic reforms, presents a terrible picture with regard to human development. All the money that is siphoned off through corruption is many times over what would be required to save our millions of children dying every year of malnutrition, from hunger and stuntedness and all other shameful instances. However, even if corruption were to be controlled and this money made available, would it ever be used to save the children who continue to die of malnutrition and hunger?

The manner in which the spoils of economic growth have been cornered by the dominant castes and communities makes it clear that the anti-corruption battle is of little meaning to the marginalized and dispossessed, unless it is shaped, led, and given direction by them. It is only then that it will be accompanied by formulations that require the distribution of resources in a more equitable fashion. In fact, even the anti-corruption laws that deal with monetary corruption will touch upon systemic corruption only if they are shaped by the people who have been at the receiving end of an unjust system.

Just consider the constitutional obligation of providing universal and compulsory education to all children up to the age of 14 as originally mandated by the Constitution. The anti-reservation activists have often said that reservations should be abolished, and all disadvantaged communities be given proper, free, and universal education. However, this has just been lip service. Hiding behind an excuse of non-availability of resources, the government has faltered on this commitment for six decades. It took the Unnikrishnan judgement of the Supreme Court that termed the right to education as a part of the right to life, to wake the government up to its responsibility. Even thereafter, it enacted an amendment to the Constitution excluding the children up to the age of six from the purview of the right to education and later passed the Right to Education Act.

In fact, there is only one way to ensure equality of opportunity through the education system: by implementing a common school system. Instead, while promising that it would complete the task of providing universal and compulsory education to all children in the age group of 6 to 14 within the next five years, the government soon began cribbing about the resource crunch, using it as a pretext to advance the model of public-private partnership (PPP). The PPP model in education is at best a euphemism for unbridled commercialization of education, which will only deprive a majority of children from quality education.

It is not a question of money. The money lost in just a single scam could have been more than enough to implement the common school system in the country. The real question is whether we have the political will to promise that every child born in the country will go through the same kind and quality of education. Would we be willing to call that inequality ‘corruption’? Clearly not. In fact, the dominant discourse has defined anti-corruption in such a restrictive and selective manner that fighting corruption is excluded from being a weapon of the weak. Such is the scale of injustice, that even ‘corruption’ is beyond its pale.



1. A.K. Jain, ‘Corruption: A Review’, Journal of Economic Survey 15(1), 2001, pp. 71-121.

2. J. Andvig, O. Fjeldstad, I. Amundsen, T. Sissener and T. Søreide, Research on Corruption: A Policy Oriented Survey, Chr. Michelsen Institute and Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, 1967; Joseph. S. Nye: ‘Corruption and Political Development: A Cost-Benefit Analysis’, American Political Science Review LXI(2), 2000, pp. 417-27.

3. Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom. Anchor Books, New York, 1999; Michael Johnston, ‘The Political Consequences of Corruption: A Reassessment’, Comparative Politics 18(4), 1986, pp. 459-77.

4. Arnold J. Heidenheimer, M. Johnston, and V.T. LeVine, Political Corruption: A Handbook. Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, 1989.

5. William J. Meyer, ‘Political Ethics and Political Authority’, Ethics 86(1), 1975, pp. 61-69.

6. Rose-Ackerman’s chapter on ‘corruption in the private sector’ in Corruption: A Study of Political Economy. Academic Press, New York, 1978.

7. Gunnar Myrdal, ‘Corruption: Its Causes and Effects’ in Asian Drama: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations, vol. II. Twentieth Century, New York, 1968, pp. 937-51; Ronald Wraith and Edgar Simpkins, Corruption in Developing Countries. Allen and Unwin, London, 1963; Stanislav Andreski, ‘Kleptocracy or Corruption as a System of Government’ in S. Andreski (ed.), The African Predicament: A Study in the Pathology of Modernization. Michael Joseph, London, 1968, pp. 92-109.

8. Nathaniel H. Leff, ‘Economic Development Through Bureaucratic Corruption’, American Behavioral Scientist 8(3), 1964, pp. 8-14; David H. Bayley, ‘The Effects of Corruption in a Developing Nation’, The Western Political Quarterly 19, December 1966, pp. 719-32; Samuel Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1968.

9. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1971.

10. John Rawls, ibid., p. 60.

11. John Rawls, ibid., p. 303.

12. Toke S. Aidt, ‘Economic Analysis of Corruption: A Survey’, The Economic Journal 113, November 2003, pp. F632-F652.

13. According to Transparency International, India ranked 87 among 178 nations in 2010, slipping three slots from previous year behind such countries as Brazil (69), Bhutan (37), Chile (78), Ghana (62) and Namibia (56). According to the data provided by Swiss banks, India has more black money than rest of the world combined. India tops the list with almost $1500 billion of black money in Swiss banks, followed by Russia $470 billion, UK $390 billion, Ukraine $100 billion and China with $96 billion. See Last accessed on 30 July 2011.

14. Toke S. Aidt, ibid.

15. David Harvey, ‘The "New" Imperialism: Accumulation by Dispossession’, Socialist Register 40, 2004.

16. Stephen Lendman, ‘Predatory Capitalism, Corruption and Militarism: What Lies Ahead in an Age of Neocon Rule?’ Global Research, 2 January 2007.

17. Kwame Nkrumah, Neo-Colonialism, The Last Stage of Imperialism. Thomas Nelson and Sons, London, 1965.