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Sunday, May 18, 2003

No. Corruption is not a cultural or genetic problem. There is no special predisposition to corrupt behaviour in our society any more than in any other culture. Ordinary Indians are as decent and honest as people anywhere in the world throughout the ages. A reputed global magazine conducted a survey of levels of integrity in several nations by dropping at several public places equivalent sums of money (in purchasing power terms) in small packets containing addresses. About 85 percent of Indians – mostly the poor, hard-working labourers-returned the money to the addressee!

Yes, it cannot be denied that corruption is ubiquitous in our national life. But that is because we made the price of honesty inordinately high, and difficult to bear. In most cultures human behaviour is regulated by three forces: religion, society and law. Fear of god, societal pressure and punishment for unacceptable conduct ensure honest, socially productive behaviour. Indians are more god-fearing than most other cultures, and we still have strong families and peer pressure to moderate our behaviour. But the institutions of state no longer have the capacity to promote honesty and curb corruption.

Many societies now regarded as very honest have faced phenomenal corruption in modern times. Britain, by all accounts, is an honest society. And yet, in the middle of the 19th century parliamentary office was often sold by the constituents to the highest bidder! Then came the great liberal, Gladstone, who transformed the British political and governance institutions and laid the foundations of modern state. As Gladstone famously said, the purpose of a government is to make it easy for people to do good, and prevent them from doing evil. When the governance and political institutions fail, corruption grows. In the US too, machine politics, nepotism, graft and abuse of authority were endemic several decades ago. Systematic efforts to build institutions of state, institute checks and balances and enforce rule of law dramatically improved the situation.

Indians by nature are not corrupt. Indians conform to rules and become model citizens when they live abroad. Neither the people, nor their values have changed; they simply adapt to an environment which rewards good behaviour and punishes bad behaviour. In India, we have built an environment which does the exact opposite: rewarding bad behaviour consistently and extravagantly, and often penalising good behaviour!

Power certainly tends to corrupt people. Abuse of authority is a natural propensity in all societies. And people submit to such abuse and rent-seeking because they have no realistic options. Often the cost of resistance to corruption is disproportionately higher than the likely benefit accused. It is difficult to be heroic while obtaining a birth certificate of your daughter. And it is well neigh impossible to resist demands for extortionary demands if your daughter is under a surgeon’s knife in a government hospital! It is absurd to blame citizens who are victims of extortionary corruption. Very few people collude in corruption and benefit from it. Such behaviour is seen in all societies, and we need strong institutions and a governance system which promotes honesty.

In India, honesty and survival in elective office are increasingly incompatible. A politician is often compelled to choose between integrity and power. Centralized bureaucracy, lifetime job security, and virtual immunity from punishment make public servants callous and corrupt. Tardy, inefficient and inaccessible justice, and absence of instruments of accountability make punishment for corruption difficult.

We need to increase the risks of corruption to unacceptably high levels, and enhance rewards for good conduct. Comprehensive electoral reform including proportional representation, funding reform, and direct election of head of government in states, substantial decentralization and empowerment of local governments, measures for speedy and efficient justice and instruments of accountability will radically alter the risks and rewards and promote honesty. Not too long ago we had to pay bribes for a train reservation or telephone connection. Computerization and competition eliminated corruption in both. The trick is in promoting competition and building better institutions; not lamenting about values or culture.

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