A few years ago, the mother-in-law of one of the greatest cricketers in India told me that when she took her husband's body for cremation, the attendant at the crematorium in Mumbai demanded a bribe to let her take the body inside. She experienced this rude shock again when she went to obtain a death certificate. In what is a peculiarly Indian version of a Kafkaesque nightmare, millions have to pay to register births and their final exit from life. Since she came from an influential family, she refused to pay up and finally got her certificate. It's this cradle to grave reality of corruption in our daily lives that perhaps ignited the Anna Hazare wave. But such waves come and go. When corruption on a daily basis is lessened - it can never be eradicated - we will have perhaps won what Arvind Kejriwal and Co couldn't. And we can't do this with mighty crowds and emotionally-charged fasts.
We need a series of innovations to deal with this systemic labyrinth of wedges in-built into our day-to-day trade and commercial transactions ranging from obtaining certificates of authentication to getting access to various services. I think bright young Indians have to think out of the box rather than just vent their frustrations by joining public protests.
The recent protests for the institution of the Jan Lokpal Bill saw a frenzy of emotions among those who came out in huge numbers on the streets. A senior journalist who visited Ramlila Maidan told me that even bright young students from some of our top colleges were present there. They were angered by the spread of the cancer of corruption and felt gratified that they also did their mite to improve the state of the nation. As members of civil society, now a catchall phrase, it'd be worthwhile for them to also engage meaningfully in improving civic life. Can't they be involved in keeping our public places safe and clean? After all, the poor may have no choice but to live in squalor, but it's infuriating to see people in luxury cars tossing plastic packets out of the window or stopping at traffic lights to roll down the window and spit. This suggests utter contempt for fellow citizens.
Even to fight corruption, we can have micro-level forms of protests that are non-violent and reformist in nature. This will pave the way for a ground swell of public opinion and momentum emerging as a culture in the country. Unless we use innovation and technology to lessen corruption and make life easier for people, the youth will lose all faith in the system.
In an earlier piece in this newspaper, I had narrated my own brush with corruption many years ago, while trying to get a rail berth reservation. Today's generation isn't likely to encounter such a thing, it's grown up using online rail and air ticket bookings that are devoid of any possibility of corruption. The average household's struggle to get a land phone connection was erased first by Sam Pitroda's carpet bombing distribution of PCOs across India and now by the mobile revolution in India. Further, income tax refunds and passports now come smoothly to people by speed post or courier. Eliminating manual interface, use of simple technological interface and a universalised adoption of improved practices almost overnight became the real triggers for these enduring game changers.
A legislation or an institution exclusively to tackle corruption can't be a panacea for corruption. The strategy should be to tackle the issue at the micro-level using innovation. The devil really is in the detail. When one applies for a municipal sanction for a building, make it a rule that it will be sanctioned automatically if there is no response for a certain period of time. Or make online access of all birth, caste, land and death records the norm. Hopefully the unique identification (UID) scheme will go a long way towards eliminating such petty irritants. To my mind, the easiest ways to eliminate corruption are automation and e-processes to provide caste, birth and death certificates, and automatic clearances for permissions, redressals to grievances on routine civic matters regarding housing or construction.
If a government official with a salary of Rs 25,000 per month is empowered with millions of rupees worth powers to decide on revenues for the State, there is bound to be a temptation to offer a deal to a greedy and enterprising citizen and carve out a win-win deal. The next level is in tracking government spending, especially for social services like nutrition, education, primary healthcare, communicable disease control programmes and seeing if the outcomes have been achieved in a desirable manner.
Can we create mechanisms for the prevention of leakages and inefficiencies on a real-time basis, so that a correction, if any, isn't done retrospectively through a Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) audit? I know of youngsters, in burgeoning numbers, who have taken up the less travelled path and solved social challenges either through inventions or new service delivery designs - be it for provision of midday meals to school children or safe drinking water to communities. Can we inspire the youth to come up with more such ideas by creating a climate conducive for this? Tax holidays, government subsidies, tax benefits for social ventures and capital funds are some big-ticket reforms that will prevent the need for punitive action, which to me is like a post-mortem when we had a chance to prevent the death.
Corruption, like truth, is relative in our country. For many at the base of the pyramid, a bribe is often the only means to food, water and survival. For others, who are often at the top of the pyramid, it is an end in itself. Therefore, it is commonplace to come across people saying how they never took a bribe but can never be sure of a life where you never have to pay a bribe.
Let us hope a Ramlila unfolds and eventually eradicates corruption, by innovative public policy reforms that pave the way for efficient service delivery for the poor. This will be the real vaccine that can eradicate corruption from our country.
K Anji Reddy is founder chairman of Dr Reddy's Laboratories Ltd and of Naandi Foundation
The views expressed by the author are personal