Let’s say you and the people in your department in office contribute Rs 20 each to buy samosas and jalebis. You give the money to someone among you to get the snacks. He returns with one regular samosa and one jalebi, and tells you it cost the whole money. What would you do?
Chances are, you’d all get together, and demand a more realistic account of your money. If the fellow fails to produce either a good enough reason, or the goods, you’d want your money back. And if it didn’t come, you’d likely get angry. Now take another example. You and the people in your office contribute a part of your salary every month to a fund. The amount goes up to lakhs of rupees a year. You give the money to the government to use for the betterment of all. Some people take off with lakhs of rupees from this fund. What would you do?
The short answer is: nothing. Because that's what happens. The irony in India is that a fellow who steals a few rupees will get beaten up, and perhaps thrown into a lockup. But a fellow who steals a few hundred crores of taxpayers’ money will probably become a successful businessman or a politician, and a respected member of society.
That’s because we can see the robbery and dupery when the pickpocket steals from us. When something as impersonal as the government takes our money and allows itself to be robbed, it’s too far removed for us to comprehend.
Had this not been the case, we’d worry about the loot of public money that routinely takes place everywhere. An event as public as the Commonwealth Games, in the country’s capital, with the world media watching, highlighted this adequately with examples bordering on the ludicrous. Over Rs 4,000 — $90 — for a roll of toilet paper? Really?
Now imagine what might — and indeed does — happen with public money allocated for public works in distant corners of the country. Those places don’t make it to ‘breaking news’ if bridges collapse, or indeed, are never built at all.
Government funds and natural resources in those places are looted at will by anyone who wields power. Some of the money finds its way into funds for election campaigns. Some of it finds its way to insurgent coffers for buying arms to be used against honest citizens and the security forces. This has been documented by the National Investigation Agency, among others, and reported by newspapers. But elicited no reaction from anyone. The public is apathetic and the robbers go about merrily looting.
Stalin, who would know, famously said that one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is statistics. A similar logic appears to operate in other spheres as well. One scam is a scandal, a million scams is statistics. And that is a national tragedy.