In the summer of 1964, an incident struck me with the force of a thunderbolt. In many ways, it shaped my future. I was doing my PhD at the National Chemical Laboratory, Pune, when I got a call to rush to my village, Tadepalli in Andhra Pradesh. I reached the railway station a couple of hours before the train to my place was scheduled to leave. After two hours of negotiating a serpentine queue, the clerk at the ticket counter said all trains were full and the first available seat would be only after one month. Sensing my urgency, he advised me to talk to the travelling ticket collector of the train.
I accosted a grumpy official who said the same thing. Unwilling to take no for an answer, I pleaded with him. Finally, minutes before the train’s departure, he called me aside and issued a berth. I thanked him profusely. He looked at me and said: “If it is only thanks, mention not!” For a moment, I couldn’t understand what he meant. I was just 23 years old with two degrees and two work experiences, none of which had equipped me with the ability to understand this subtle hint.
Corruption in India is an accepted fact; but to me, it was unacceptable. Since that day, I often wondered if it’s possible to eradicate corruption. The recent fast of Anna Hazare and the candlelight marches reminded me of that incident. I wondered why we never use those tools (fasting and vigils) to get railway reservations. The lack of a ticket obtained through legal means could mean missing a vital examination or the last rites of a loved one. I am all for lighting candles. But I wonder if it’s an over-simplification of the means to deal with a culture which has become ingrained in our psyche. Is it not akin to entering the confession box and saying I have sinned only to do the same thing the next day?
Let’s revisit the railway story today. If one wants a ticket, she can book it online, get it couriered home and, if it’s a waitlisted ticket, she can monitor the status online. Further, one also has emergency options like the tatkal seva, which comes at a premium. Clearly, the Indian Railways has undergone a metamorphosis that was unthinkable even a decade ago. How? Two simple acts. One, technology has closed all windows for human manipulation and forced errors. Second, outsourcing the whole process of ticketing to a private firm.
The e-Seva programme of Andhra Pradesh, an online transaction system for taxation, bill payment for utilities etc, was another silent revolution that liberated millions from the clutches of corruption. Therefore, the solution lies in technology and its smart use. This may eliminate labour at one level, but often the efficiencies of a changing system outweigh economic losses due to this shortchanging.
From the use of mobile phones, biometrics to cloud computing, all forms of technological solutions have to be harvested for better governance and improving service delivery. Technology can create accountability, eliminate inequities at the user level and make things more transparent.
The media-savvy to middle class youth should petition the government about the smart use of technology. Once the option of a technology-based solution is offered, some babu or mantri may pick it up and implement it. If it works, market forces will compel the government to make it the norm. So let’s start scribbling or touching the iPad screens for the best technological solutions to weed out corruption in India. And light a candle once in a while too.
For a start, let me offer the idea of legalising donations to political parties, especially the drives for funds during election time. We may even offer tax exemptions to donors and make way for political parties to list themselves on the stock exchange. The US has done this with reasonable success. More seriously, maybe we should aim for ‘total computer literacy’ than the mockery of adult literacy where a person learns to sign their names and get declared as literate. This will make the use of the internet possible for people in the last mile as well.
Lastly, technology will also help us nudge people and change consumer behaviour. After all, for every corrupt politician in the country there are scores of willing bribe- givers.
I shall end with a story that may sound more apocryphal than true.
Years ago, home minister Gulzarilal Nanda vowed to eradicate corruption and said: “I am determined to do this. Anyone who has been affected by this can meet me personally at my house with the complaint.” One morning, there was a long queue of people with their grievances. The first person entered and started describing how he got to be number one in the queue. Apparently, he had got there by bribing Nanda’s peon Rs 50.
I think we should put out the candlelight marches and instead light the innovation bulbs in our minds. May a million algorithms bloom!
(K Anji Reddy is founder chairman of Dr Reddy’s Laboratories Limited and the Naandi Foundation)
The views expressed by the author are personal