Is there a culture of honesty in India?
As India prepares to celebrate its 70th year of independence, it will do so as a nation that has confounded many sceptics over the decades—first with its technological accomplishments, wiping out famine, then by remaining largely steadfast on the democratic path and, finally, by unleashing its prowess in the services sector and consolidating its position as one of the world’s leading emerging economies. But two failures blight India’s accomplishments.
Poverty is persistent and grinding—more than 270 million people, that is 22% of Indians, live in conditions of squalor and extreme poverty, earning $1.90 or less a day, according to the World Bank. And there is the related problem of corruption—as intractable as it was at the birth of independent India. In 1947, the problems were different. In that year, India legislated an anti-corruption Act over worries of war-related corruption.
The 1947 law was very specific and spelt out its particular concern: Extensive schemes of post-war reconstruction, involving massive government spending, “offer wide scope for corrupt practices and the seriousness of the evil and the possibility of its continuance or extension in the future are such as to justify immediate and drastic action to stamp it out. The existing law has proved inadequate for dealing with the problem which has arisen in recent years and the Bill is intended to render the Criminal Law more effective in dealing with cases of bribery and corruption of public servants”.
Far from being “stamped out”, corruption has only dug in deeper into the Indian society and political economy. In his last monthly radio broadcast to the nation before Independence Day (15 August), Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the nationwide single indirect tax regime—the goods and services tax—introduced by his government “has started a culture of honesty in the country and is like a social reform movement”. Yet, evidence on the ground appears mixed at best. Although this may only be the outcome of a temporary wait-and-watch attitude, many small shops are nowhere near adopting the new system. They would rather take your cash and give you a hand-written receipt.
I do not know what Modi plans to focus on in his 15 August speech but, given that his party came to power on the basis of ending corruption and pushing development, it is about time these two themes were linked in the public imagination in a more robust manner. The World Bank, for instance, considers corruption “a major challenge to its twin goals of ending extreme poverty by 2030 and boosting shared prosperity for the poorest 40% of people in developing countries.” Indians make up the majority of the poorest 40% the World Bank Group is referring to.
Former Indonesian finance minister and World Bank managing director Sri Mulyani Indrawati draws the link in clear terms. Corruption, she says, “diverts resources from the poor to the rich, leads to a culture of bribes, and distorts public expenditures, deterring foreign investors and hampering economic growth”.
The federal law aimed at curbing corruption is the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, which sought to broaden the narrow focus of the 1947 Act, and was introduced in the midst of independent India’s most high-profile case of alleged corruption, the Bofors case—a scam involving the Swedish howitzer manufacturer that contributed to the defeat of the Congress government in 1989.
However, this piece of legislation is also narrowly focused—it only applies when there is a public servant involved in an alleged act of corruption. As N. Ram, the journalist and former editor who spearheaded the Bofors investigation for The Hindu newspaper, writes in his recent book, Why Scams Are Here To Stay, “The criminal cases against the private individuals and shell companies shown to have received percentage-based payoffs disguised as ‘commissions’ from Bofors AB in connection with the Indian howitzer deal collapsed because the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) failed to provide evidence of any money trail leading to the public servants involved in the case.”
In any case, India is notorious for poor enforcement of laws, even where the laws are good. Data analysed by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) shows that between 2001 and 2015 the government’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) documented the registration of 91 million offences across the country, punishable under the Indian Penal Code and various special laws. As a proportion of these offences, corruption cases, at 54,139, account for not even 1% of this figure. At a mere 0.06% of the total, corruption seems “like a less than minor problem”, it said.
During the same period, however, people filed 116,010 complaints over being required to pay bribes on the popular website, ipaidabribe.com. “This comparison seems to indicate severe lack of public confidence in the ability of the anti-corruption agencies to probe a complaint of corruption, collect evidence and put the case up for trial. Of course, bribery is only one form of corruption. The PCA recognizes various offences as “corruption”, said the CHRI report.
Few of these cases end up in court and even fewer lead to conviction. There are exceptions: the state of Kerala topped corruption cases reaching trial stage, with 62% ending in conviction during 2001-15. But, “in states like Goa, Manipur and Tripura, the acquittals were 100%. All 30 accused were acquitted by courts in these states,” it said.
Today, the perception that corruption has seeped into every walk of life is widespread in India. Thievery, for instance, is rife in real estate. It is common for a property developer to flout regulation through bribery, build something, sell it to you as part of a property (say, a terrace) and then put that part of the property under lock and key, denying you access—encouraged by the low rate of conviction.
“Corruption begins with me, but it goes all the way up,” Rajender, a cabbie, told me the other day when I asked him how he would end this scourge. “When I pay the traffic policeman, he tells me he gets to keep only a small part of it.” If that is true, then it is also true that my savings—and yours too—go into fuelling corruption.
In his Independence Day remarks on the culture of honesty, Modi, in very simple terms, was referring to behaviour change. But can it be brought about by legislation alone? Can law, in other words, promote the culture of honesty with feeble enforcement? With several popular anti-corruption movements having fizzled out, now’s as good a time as any for the nation and its leaders to ponder over how to end graft.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1