Sunday, January 1, 2012

Imaging Indian corruption DNA

Author: Udayan Namboodiri
Indians Like Us (PLU) have chicanery in our DNA. Ending corruption would shatter our delightful economy, scatter our “contacts” and stunt future plans based on cosy “settings”. Anna gave us a temporary guilt trip, but thanks to Parliament's “supremacy” all is well

When Rajya Sabha Chairman Hamid Ansari barked out the order “national song!” at the stroke of midnight on Thursday, utter quietude swept the playing bowl of the Rajya Sabha. All the MPs who were just short of spitting on each other till then sprang to their feet like naughty schoolboys surprised by the sudden arrival of the prefect.

Then they trooped out shouting slogans, a job well done. And we, in the grateful sub-nation of Indians Like Us (aka PLU— People Like Us) went to sleep, happy that our humungously selfish world was left intact. And oh, we forgot to notice the supreme irony that Vande Mataram, Bamkim Chandra’s powerful call to Mother India, had anything to do with that cathedral. But then, how many of the distinguished gentlemen present in the House — forget the general mass (aka People Like Them) — had any idea what Vande Mataram was about?

We PLU folks have over the generations struck a strange comfort level with corruption. Lip service for Anna Hazare is one thing, but we secretly dread transportation to an Auschwitz where we would be forced to live like ordinary people respecting suffocating laws and equalising rules, and, generally, paying the price for our chicanery. India may be one of the poorest nations in the world with 80 per cent living sub-Saharan lifestyles, but for us 200 million its better than Sweden — without the discipline and transparency.

So, thanks to the (excuse my Calcuttaism) “Got up match” arranged by Pranab Mukherjee and Mamata Banerjee, a Lokpal, independent CBI and all, is door ast. We can have our rosogollah and eat it too.

The Lokpal, if passed into law, would have created unimaginable crises at social, economic and political levels. Hundreds of millions of Indians working hard and enjoying only the fruits of transparent pursuits may be a moralist’s utopia, but it may also turn out an economist’s nightmare.

For starters, where would an economy emerge from to sustain so much honesty? Every sector —from Agriculture to Zinc mining — is dominated by individuals and corporate entities who have tweaked rules with gay abandon for years. Many of these would be driven out of business when the neta-babu-bania axis is broken up by a good Lokpal, independent CBI and all. The victims of this purification would in the most part be the workers and low-grade executives — I’ll bet their owners have already made getaway plans.

So, a new population of the starving would be added to the already existing one. A good Lokpal, independent CBI and all, would spell disaster for NGOs for whom serving the deprived is a convenient fa├žade. Reason: fewer sinners seeking soul cleansing through donations. No more Mother Teresas and Puttaparthi Sai Babas because it would become harder and harder for drug lords and tax avoiders to underwrite God’s own work.

Suppose the Lokpal is not strategically peopled by malleable officials beforehand, and it has an independent CBI and all, it could, in the long run, foster a culture of honesty in the country. Schoolteachers would be forced teach their charges properly instead of running after private tuition; doctors would become accountable; journalists would stop toadying to operators; the streets of Delhi would be cleaner, and, yes, the trains would run on time.

Let’s not jump with joy at the prospect. Living the disciplined life is harder than you think. Indians, who travel abroad, even as far as Singapore, invariably return with a sense of wonder about the little things which each citizen of those countries does to simplify life in general. But in India, “freedom” is a much-stretched concept. Our democratic patricians have, for their own sustenance, promoted a national culture of waste and abuse which, over three generations, has benumbed the ordinary Indian’s responses to myriad transgressions.

For instance, my right to “democratic protest” is burning a public bus. Or preventing you from rushing your sickchild to a doctor. This phoney democratic edifice is in itself a manifestation of corruption and would have to go. Democracy would need to be taken back to the worktable and reshaped to benefit the common man, not mindlessly serve the entrenched elite’s sense of entitlement. Now, wouldn’t that be injurious for the economic health of PLUs? Think, for instance of the years of building the right contacts which would henceforth amount to nothing?

And, how would we get by in a new world where everything may be transparent? We hate transparency, consider it anti-people. What about a whole national economy based on graft? Take, for example, an everyday example. Few people care to know that that the giant advertising hoardings in our cities break environment and building laws. They may bring in a few pennies to our civic bodies, but the benefits which accrue to the large advertisers at the cost of the common good are many times higher. When confronted, their last defence is “think of the hundreds employed in this.”

That’s a tricky poser because we don’t have a genre of economists capable of computing the short to medium term cost of ending corruption. Economics, like most disciplines taught in Indian universities, is for serving the master’s cause. The exacerbating dimension has been the post-1991 trend to serve masters in Washington, not even India.

So, one of the first steps that a strong Lokpal institution, independent CBI and all, should undertake is commission, through reputed institutions like NSSO and NCAER, proper research into the length, breadth and depth of corruption already existing in the system. Without putting a cost to that it would be impossible to evolve a salvage plan.

Unemployment and a receding future being the inescapable pains accompanying the transition from deep corruption to first signs of change, masses of Indians would be left with no option but emigrate. Today’s Washington Post has a story about falling birth rates in South America. Last week’s Daily Mirror had another about certain west European countries facing demographic disaster for lack of breeding age people. That’s opportunity for Indians. Now, Indians are synonymous with virtuous citizenship in their adopted countries. You’d rarely hear of an Indian breaking even a traffic rule in any of the countries peopled by our 60 mn Diaspora. The only time Indians make the crime news abroad is when they get killed in hate crimes.

What about those, undeniably the vast majority, who won’t be accepted anywhere and are doomed to live and die like aam admi? Nation rebuilding is hardly possible with unskilled, uncompetitive people. But a good Lokpal, independent CBI and all, would certainly take the bottom out of the corrupt politico-bureaucratic system which is the cause of all their misfortune. One of the best effects would be a replacement of the political masters — the good would drive away the bad.

A good Lokpal, independent CBI and all, would surely plug the existing leaks in public money flows. Hundreds of thousands of crore would be saved if the graft economy is strangled to death —or even emaciated by half. Government tender evaluation processes, if recorded on CCTV, would lead to lakhs of crore flowing to public purposes. At everyday levels, if only our IAS babus could be reminded of rules governing use of government cars, that in itself would spare more a minimum Rs 1 lakh crore annually. The dhobi list of could-dos is endless.

But before all this begins —and thanks to Dada and Didi it won’t for quite some time — we must place our hands to our hearts and ask ourselves “do we as a nation really want to be less corrupt?” In all probability, we’d end up seeing our hearts pop out of our mouths.
(The writer is Senior Editor, The Pioneer)
Imagining India without corruption

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