The 2009 recession, followed by a long-drawn out slowdown, coupled with scams tumbling out of the government’s closet one after the other, have unsurprisingly made traders in India pessimistic and dejected.
The HT-MaRS Governance Survey found that close to 70% of traders believed corruption had eaten into the system and that the malaise was so widespread that it was beyond their power or that of the common man to fight it.
"Something that could be obtained for Rs. 500 now sets us back by Rs. 5,000-10,000 because of corruption," Ashok Gupta, a wholesale grocer in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, said nonchalantly. "Corruption has become an inescapable reality."
Although a majority of traders said they did not pay bribes to the police or officials of tax departments, among those who did or were forced to, every two in five pointed the finger at the police. Interestingly, 63.8% of wholesale dealers admitted to paying bribes to the police, compared to only 28.2% of retailers.
"The police are so corrupt that they won’t let go of the slightest opportunity to make extra cash," Avinash Kumar, the manager of a wholesale cloth store on GB Road, said. "When they see that a person lacks the means to pay up, they will shamelessly ask for small amounts too!"
Despite the Aam Aadmi Party wave and its strong pledge to weed out graft, 27.6% of traders said they were more likely to pay bribe now than a year ago. "Initially it seemed Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal was serious about curbing corruption, but now, he too, is getting used to the trappings of power," Paharganj hardware trader Amit Singh said sceptically. "The situation is going back to square one."
For Harmeet Singh, the director of a tea manufacturing company based in Shastri Nagar, government officials have been a source of harassment since 2006. He claimed that they had slapped a case on him on flimsy grounds.
Among all the government departments with whom traders came in contact, the VAT registration department appeared to be the least corrupt, with 94.1% of respondents saying they did not have to bribe them.
It’s bad news for the UPA government at the Centre in election year as it got a lowly rating of 4.2 on a scale of 10 for establishing a mechanism to prevent corruption and performed even worse on punishing the corrupt.
Predictably, more than half of all traders believed that the UPA had not done enough to mitigate the effect of the economic slowdown; only 29.2% blamed the state of the world economy and 17.9%, the failure of the Indian business.
"Ministers and government officials are only concerned about their well-being," Kumar said. "We are denied the chance to even air our grievances or enter their chambers."
A majority have also lost faith in the justice system, saying it was not available equally to everyone. Lokpal seemed to be the only bright spot, with close to 60% of respondents vouching for its necessity.
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The survey was carried out by research agency MaRS in 13 cities
— Delhi, Lucknow, Jaipur, Chandigarh, Kolkata, Patna, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Pune, Indore, Chennai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad — from December 20, 2013 to January 10, 2014. Over 900 respondents participated in it, 12% of them were wholesalers and the remaining were retailers. The traders represented a wide range of categories including household goods, electronic items, computers, groceries and vegetables.