Contrary to popular belief, India’s liberalisation has not reduced corruption. If anything, it has only liberalised corruption. True, the rigours of the licence quota-permit Raj have receded for the most part. But the inspector Raj is very much alive and kicking. Actually, the further down one descends the socio-economic ladder, corruption is a hardy perennial. What is most shocking is that for those below the poverty line (BPL), a whopping Rs 883 crore was spent last year for getting a ration card for the public distribution system (PDS), for getting registered for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), for admission to a school, for filing a police complaint and so on. These are facts that have come to light through a survey conducted by Transparency International and the Centre for Media Studies. So no fluffy pessimism, this.
Significantly, ‘BPL corruption’ is unrelated to any discretionary power vested with the State, exemplified by the licence Raj. The bribes paid by the 300 million poor in the country, in fact, are related to their fundamental entitlements. The sole rationale of the PDS and NREGS are to provide a social safety net for the poor and it is a dereliction of the fundamental responsibilities of the State if the poor have to pay bribes to access these basic entitlements. Per head spending on bribes is Rs 400 and this tends to go up when the services availed are greater. These are huge amounts for those subsisting on less than Rs 42 a day. These are real people behind the reports suggesting leakages in the anti-poverty schemes launched by the government. What is the use of such schemes when the poor — and especially the very poor — have to pay a hafta as bribes?
Sadly, there are no easy ways to root out this problem. Tackling corruption below the poverty line is not feasible without pressure from civil society groups. Just as their involvement is a precondition for making schemes like NREGS work better, greater vigilance on their part will ensure that corruption is curbed, at least at the vulnerable grassroots level.