De­mon­e­tise the Babus

So long as bu­reau­cratic and po­lit­i­cal ve­nal­ity is ig­nored, the war on cor­rup­tion will re­main a sham


WHEN THAT ICON of the NonAligned Move­ment, Fidel Cas­tro, passed away re­cently, he was re­mem­bered fondly by an older gen­er­a­tion of Cubans. Among them were peo­ple who had been il­lit­er­ate adults when the revo­lu­tion oc­curred in 1959. Two years later, when the gov­ern­ment de­clared ‘the year of ed­u­ca­tion’, the il­lit­er­acy rate fell from around 40 per cent to less than 4 per cent. Cuba went from be­ing a poor coun­try with low lev­els of ru­ral lit­er­acy to univer­sal lit­er­acy. It did this with few eco­nomic re­sources and with­out the steel frame of a per­ma­nent, well-func­tion­ing bu­reau­cracy. More­over, some of Cuba’s best ed­u­cated peo­ple had fled and it was faced with a short­age of trained teach­ers and ed­u­ca­tors.

I in­voke Cuba’s ex­pe­ri­ence with rad­i­cal change in or­der to put into con­text a plan like de­mon­eti­sa­tion. What might we learn from other gov­ern­men­tled plans that were ac­tu­ally suc­cess­ful in bring­ing about change in a short time? How did Cuba man­age to erad­i­cate il­lit­er­acy, es­pe­cially adult il­lit­er­acy, so quickly? The se­cret was so­ci­etal mo­bil­i­sa­tion. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of or­di­nary, lit­er­ate peo­ple, from school­child­ren to teach­ers and work­ers, were mo­ti­vated to act. Ur­ban peo­ple, who oth­er­wise had lit­tle con­tact with ru­ral ar­eas, learnt first-hand about the lives of their poor com­pa­tri­ots. Un­like many other ini­tia­tives of the Cuban gov­ern­ment that re­lied on force or fear and did not leave an en­dur­ing legacy, this ini­tia­tive called upon the ide­al­ism of its peo­ple to change the coun­try for­ever. Re­flect­ing on the lit­er­acy cam­paign 55 years later, it is clear that for many Cubans, this act alone gave Cas­tro’s gov­ern­ment life-long le­git­i­macy. The po­lit­i­cal pay­off of such an ini­tia­tive is in­cal­cu­la­ble. The Gov­ern­ment of In­dia has never mo­bilised the energies of its peo­ple to do some­thing equiv­a­lent af­ter In­de­pen­dence, al­though there is no short­age of move­ments in civil so­ci­ety, like the JP move­ment. Af­ter the suc­cess of the na­tional move­ment in achiev­ing In­de­pen­dence, the pre­sump­tion was that the job of na­tion-build­ing was done, rather than just be­gun. The ide­al­ism of In­dia’s pop­u­la­tion, and of its youth in par­tic­u­lar, has never been tapped by the gov­ern­ment for a larger so­cial pur­pose. For the most part, the In­dian state has been con­tent at pre­serv­ing the sta­tus quo. When the state ma­chin­ery has used mo­bil­i­sa­tion to tackle an im­por­tant prob­lem like pop­u­la­tion, the ef­forts have done more harm than good. The use of ter­ror and re­pres­sion dur­ing the Emer­gency ar­guably set back pop­u­la­tion con­trol by many years.

This brings me to a sec­ond point of com­par­i­son with the Cuban ex­pe­ri­ence. The very fact that ru­ral peo­ple who were al­ready adults at the time of the revo­lu­tion are alive to­day speaks to Cuba’s ex­tra­or­di­nary record in rais­ing life ex­pectancy. Ac­cord­ing to the World Bank, life ex­pectancy in Cuba went up from 64 years in 1960 to 79 years to­day, equal to that of the United States. Unicef re­ports that Cuba’s un­der-5 mor­tal­ity rate went from 47 in 1963 to 5.5 in 2015, a rate lower than the United States. For a rel­a­tively poor coun­try, this is no mean feat. How­ever, the rais­ing of life ex­pectancy and the

low­er­ing of child mor­tal­ity re­sulted from very dif­fer­ent mech­a­nisms than the re­duc­tion of il­lit­er­acy. It in­volved in­sti­tu­tion-build­ing over a long pe­riod of time. This was not the kind of re­sult that could be ob­tained by a cam­paign of mass mo­bil­i­sa­tion. It in­volved more eq­ui­table ac­cess to health, the pro­vi­sion of good pri­mary health­care, and the train­ing of a large cadre of med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als.

SO HERE WE HAVE the ex­am­ple of two suc­cess sto­ries but two very dif­fer­ent paths to achieve them. One was ob­tained through mass mo­bil­i­sa­tion and na­tion­al­ist en­ergy; the other through in­sti­tu­tion-build­ing and bu­reau­cratic or­gan­i­sa­tion. Both were achieved with very few re­sources: the Cuban gov­ern­ment was never flush with funds.

What then can we learn from the Cuban ex­am­ple? In­dia achieved In­de­pen­dence more than a decade be­fore the Cuban revo­lu­tion. At the time of In­de­pen­dence, In­dia was a lot poorer than Cuba was at the time of the revo­lu­tion. How­ever, in terms of what we have been able to do in the past seven decades to im­prove the qual­ity of the lives of poor peo­ple, the con­trast be­tween Cuba and In­dia could not be greater. We are jus­ti­fi­ably proud of hav­ing shrugged off anaemic rates of eco­nomic growth for the last three decades. But high rates of GDP growth have done lit­tle for In­dia’s abysmal hu­man de­vel­op­ment record. We are last among BRIC coun­tries, and at par with Cen­tral Amer­i­can states that have been wracked with in­ter­nal vi­o­lence and dys­func­tional govern­ments.

What is to be done about it? How can In­dia be­come a global su­per­power with one of the poor­est, least well-ed­u­cated pop­u­la­tions on the planet, where the av­er­age adult has only five-and-a-half years of school­ing? Ed­u­ca­tion and health out­comes can­not be al­tered through one cam­paign; there has to be sys­tem­atic bu­reau­cratic trans­for­ma­tion that makes a long-term dif­fer­ence. How­ever, much like the clean­li­ness cam­paign, Swachh Bharat, it is pos­si­ble to kick­start longterm bu­reau­cratic changes in ed­u­ca­tion and health with suc­cess­ful pub­lic mo­bil­i­sa­tion. But such a mo­bil­i­sa­tion must be ac­com­pa­nied by bu­reau­cratic re­form, oth­er­wise it will come to naught.

This is where the cur­rent anti-cor­rup­tion cam­paign through de­mon­eti­sa­tion falls short. Peo­ple are putting up with the in­con­ve­nience of stand­ing in queues, los­ing wages and falling sales be­cause they want an end to petty cor­rup­tion. If, at the end of the process, they do not see any pay­off in terms of a pal­pa­ble re­duc­tion in cor­rup­tion, we might ex­pect a back­lash. Al­though seen pri­mar­ily as a mid­dle-class is­sue, petty cor­rup­tion ac­tu­ally af­fects the poor more than any other seg­ment of the pop­u­la­tion. It is safe to say that any politi­cian who can sig­nif­i­cantly re­duce the forms of cor­rup­tion to which cit­i­zens are ex­posed on a daily ba­sis will have bought the kind of po­lit­i­cal le­git­i­macy that Cas­tro ob­tained from his lit­er­acy cam­paign. Re­duc­ing cor­rup­tion has the back­ing of all seg­ments of the pop­u­la­tion, even some of those very bu­reau­crats who ben­e­fit from the sys­tem of cor­rup­tion in their work lives.

Cor­rup­tion can­not be tack­led solely through pub­lic mo­bil­i­sa­tion, as the Aam Aadmi Party has dis­cov­ered, nor solely through bu­reau­cratic and po­lit­i­cal re­form, but needs to com­bine all of those el­e­ments. An­ti­cor­rup­tion re­form needs to mo­bilise the wide­spread anger against cor­rup­tion in the pop­u­la­tion with real changes in bu­reau­cratic in­cen­tives to make cor­rup­tion too risky for in­di­vid­u­als. But it also fun­da­men­tally needs changes in the con­duct of politi­cians and of po­lit­i­cal par­ties. With­out that, the good in­ten­tions of even a sur­prise pro­gramme like de­mon­eti­sa­tion can be un­der­cut by cor­rup­tion among those re­spon­si­ble for im­ple­ment­ing the pro­gramme.

When bu­reau­crat­i­cally en­trenched sys­tems of cor­rup­tion ex­ist, where the prob­lem lies not with a few bad ap­ples, but where ev­ery­body shares in the spoils, then it is not enough sim­ply to in­crease sur­veil­lance and con­duct sur­prise raids. More of­ten than

not, this ends up im­pli­cat­ing lower-level bu­reau­crats rather than their bosses who over­see the whole sys­tem. Pun­ish­ing lower-level em­ploy­ees by sus­pend­ing or trans­fer­ring them does lit­tle to al­ter the struc­ture of rent col­lec­tion.

It is a tru­ism that re­form­ing the bu­reau­cracy must be­gin with in­cen­tives in the form of high wages. But un­less that is ac­com­pa­nied with stronger dis­in­cen­tives, bu­reau­crats have lit­tle to fear by ac­cept­ing bribes. A trans­fer to a pun­ish­ment post may be a ter­ri­ble thing but it is only tem­po­rary, and can be re­versed in due time by the pay­ment of an ap­pro­pri­ate bribe to a po­lit­i­cal over­lord. There is no fear of im­pris­on­ment, lit­tle fear of pub­lic sham­ing and dam­age to rep­u­ta­tions, and very lit­tle danger of los­ing one’s job. Ju­di­cial con­vic­tions for sys­tem­atic cor­rup­tion are rare, and sel­dom in­volve the heads of bu­reau­cratic de­part­ments. More­over, no party in a cor­rupt trans­ac­tion has an in­cen­tive to re­port a bribe. This is where so­cial mo­bil­i­sa­tion is im­por­tant.

At­tack­ing bu­reau­cratic cor­rup­tion leaves untouched the thorny ques­tion of po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion. As long as po­lit­i­cal par­ties con­sider it ac­cept­able for min­is­ters to make de­mands of money from bu­reau­crats at the time of elec­tions, or auc­tion prized bu­reau­cratic posts to the high­est bid­der, it is hard to blame the bu­reau­cracy for cor­rup­tion. The rot re­ally be­gins with par­ties ex­pect­ing that can­di­dates who are given tick­ets for elec­tions should pay for them. Naturally, once such can­di­dates are elected, they use their new­found po­lit­i­cal power to earn back what they have paid. Even ‘re­sult-ori­ented’ regimes tol­er­ate cor­rup­tion among their min­is­ters as long as they get things done. The prob­lem, of course, is that po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion un­leashes bu­reau­cratic cor­rup­tion be­cause once it is deemed ac­cept­able to squeeze bu­reau­crats for money, no ac­tor in the sys­tem has an in­cen­tive to stop pick­ing the pub­lic’s pocket. Po­lit­i­cal lead­ers can ini­ti­ate vig­or­ous anti-cor­rup­tion cam­paigns only by stop­ping their own de­mands for pay­ments from the bu­reau­cracy.

ONE AN­SWER TO po­lit­i­cal and bu­reau­cratic cor­rup­tion is to in­crease the power of in­ves­ti­gat­ing agen­cies. This, how­ever, merely in­creases the dis­cre­tionary and ar­bi­trary power of those con­duct­ing the raids. As in Xi’s China, anti-cor­rup­tion cam­paigns can be­come a mech­a­nism to weed out en­e­mies and jail com­peti­tors. An­other prob­lem that arises with this so­lu­tion is that it in­creases the chance that the en­forcers them­selves be­come cor­rupt, be­cause no one is watch­ing them.

Anti-cor­rup­tion vig­i­lance has to be ex­er­cised by those who are sub­ject to ex­trac­tive rents on a daily ba­sis, and not just by the vig­i­lance depart­ment. Ul­ti­mately, anti-cor­rup­tion mea­sures will only suc­ceed by mak­ing cor­rup­tion mo­rally rep­re­hen­si­ble, and that is where so­cial mo­bil­i­sa­tion is crit­i­cal. How­ever, if peo­ple see po­lit­i­cal elites ben­e­fit­ing from cor­rup­tion while mouthing anti-cor­rup­tion slogans, it will make the pop­u­la­tion even more cyn­i­cal and de­spair­ing than it is to­day. In this re­gard, lead­er­ship has to come from the top and the bot­tom. No anti-cor­rup­tion ef­fort will suc­ceed if it is lim­ited to a top-down ex­er­cise, one that re­lies largely on re­pres­sion and con­trol, rather than in­volv­ing the peo­ple in a cen­tral way.

Will 2017 be In­dia’s year of the war on cor­rup­tion? Is de­mon­eti­sa­tion the right in­stru­ment to achieve this goal? Will the sac­ri­fice of com­mon peo­ple for the past two months re­sult in tan­gi­ble change in their daily lives? It seems very un­likely un­less de­mon­eti­sa­tion is the first step in a far-reach­ing trans­for­ma­tion in the func­tion­ing of po­lit­i­cal par­ties and bu­reau­cra­cies. There are much harder chal­lenges ahead be­fore the com­mon per­son can live a life free of de­mands for cor­rupt pay­ments. AKHIL GUPTA, pro­fes­sor of an­thro­pol­ogy and di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for In­dia and South Asia at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Los An­ge­les (UCLA), is the au­thor of Red Tape: Bu­reau­cracy, Struc­tural Vi­o­lence, and Poverty in In­dia

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