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We, the extorted

2010 has been the year of scams. To get to the heart of the rot, we examine corruption at the individual and institutional levels. Gautam Chikermane writes. Bribes big corporations pay | Five watchdogs | Hindustan Times — C fore Survey: Targets of corruption

india Updated: Dec 05, 2010 02:17 IST
Gautam Chikermane

It's not about the number of zeros - Rs 176,000 crore in the 2G scam, thousands of crores in the Commonwealth Games (CWG) scam, hundreds of crores in Adarsh housing scam, lakhs paid as bribes in the housing scam.

It is not the mechanics, either -ownership issues in the IPL scam, overpaying in the CWG scam, flouting all norms so the powerful get to usurp Kargil heroes' homes in the Adarsh housing scam, changing tender norms to suit some companies in the 2G scam.

It is not the institutions that rot behind - Ministry of Telecom, municipal bodies, Ministry of Sports, the Commonwealth organising committee, the Delhi government.

It's not even the individuals who allegedly subverted various systems and converted their positions into cash.

Public accountability has become a notion in a political science book, and governance a theoretical construct. A feast of corruption in voyeurism, in newspapers and TV, discussed over cocktails, and forgotten with the next scam. No sir, it's not about all that.

The issue is about us - the issue is us. Corruption in high places gives us reasons to vent out our real frustrations - the flood of bribery that hits us the moment we step out of our homes. From the day we are born and have to pay for a birth certificate through life's motions (education, jobs, house, licence, businesses) right down to death certificate, every public service that is ours by right comes with a bribery tag attached (See survey).

Extortion is the price we pay for being born Indians, petty officials have become our masters, and bribery has become a tax we've learnt to live with. The Indian constitution that begins with: "We, the people…", has been deformed in practice to mean, "We, the extorted."

"About 85% of all reports on our site say people had to pay a bribe," said TR Raghunandan, programme coordinator of ipaidabribe.com, a website launched on August 15.

"About 10% said they were asked to pay a bribe but didn't, and only 5% faced honest government officials."

Bribes demanded from the police topped the charts, followed by motor vehicle authority, registration of property and marriage, and services like issuance of birth and death certificates and building licences.

"A Rs 26,000 power bill reached me in Noida in August 1995, I had to go to the office five times," an executive who refused to be identified said.

"This was more than thrice my income. He asked for Rs 10,000. I ran out and vomited."

Let's not get holier than thou. When we flout norms, we become part of the system we condemn. The capital is overflowing with buildings that have flouted norms. But behind every such building is a willing participant, an initiator.

It is much the same when we try to set up a small business - the same leeches are waiting in the cesspool of rules, regulations and bylaws. More than three out of five small businessmen pay bribes to stay in business. Sales tax evasion tops the list - three out of five small businessmen have paid a bribe to evade sales tax, and half of those have paid more than Rs 10,000.

The organised sector faces organised bribery.

"To set up a factory, you need to keep aside 10% of the project cost for bribes," a mid-sized businessman who refused to be identified, said.

"Ultimately, it is the consumer who pays, through a higher price of the product, service or toll."

If that is true, it is something that a government that purports to fight for the aam aadmi needs to address. But that makes corruption a political issue over which there is very little political will.

"All political donations should be made by cheque and accounted for," said CII director general Chandrajit Banerjee.

So entrenched is this issue that if we were to fix it, the entire system would need to unravel.

"Bribery is distortionary, discouraging economic activity," said C Simon Fan of Lingnan University, Chen Lin of Chinese University of Hong Kong and Daniel Treisman of UCLA in Embezzlement versus Bribery, a paper released last month.

What we're seeing in all the scams right now is embezzlement. What we're facing everyday, however, is bribery.

Finally, I wonder if corruption is one of the rungs on the ladder of economic growth. Developed economies like the US, Singapore or Hong Kong too faced and fought corruption and bribery. If that hypothesis is correct, the explosion of scams that we're seeing around us, and their fixing could be the first step towards the end of bribery in our daily lives.

Bribes big corporations pay | Five watchdogs | Hindustan Times — C fore Survey: Targets of corruption