Bu­reau­crat with ‘black money’ stash says a bribe is not taboo

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

The en­gi­neer was in the mid­dle of his evening med­i­ta­tion ses­sion when a col­league called and told him to turn on the tele­vi­sion. The prime min­is­ter was say­ing most of In­dia’s cash would hold no value by morn­ing. The ob­jec­tive was to rid the coun­try of il­le­gal “black money” for which taxes had not been paid. Money of­ten as­so­ci­ated with il­le­gal ac­tiv­ity such as bribery. Money like the 4.8 mil­lion ru­pees ($70,000) stashed in a steel trunk, un­der a makeshift set­tee, in the en­gi­neer’s bed­room.

“For first few min­utes I could not un­der­stand,” the en­gi­neer said, speak­ing to the As­so­ci­ated Press on con­di­tion of anonymity for fear of pros­e­cu­tion. The en­gi­neer, em­ployed by the pub­lic works depart­ment of north­ern Ut­tar Pradesh state, and many of his col­leagues had amassed piles of cash by tak­ing bribes for pub­lic con­tracts - a prac­tice so com­mon it has be­come ac­cepted by many as part of the price of do­ing busi­ness in In­dia. They felt con­fused - even be­trayed - by the govern­ment crack­ing down.

“A bribe is not a taboo in a govern­ment job,” the en­gi­neer said. Modi, in his Nov 8 tele­vised ad­dress, an­nounced the de­mon­e­ti­za­tion of In­dia’s 500- and 1,000ru­pee notes, which made up 86 per­cent of the coun­try’s cur­rency. He said it would wipe out ram­pant cor­rup­tion, though in a coun­try of 1.3 bil­lion where most peo­ple don’t have bank ac­counts, it also wiped out legally col­lected sav­ings. “With this de­ci­sion we have, in one stroke, hit at the root of the sources of cor­rup­tion,” Fi­nance Min­is­ter Arun Jait­ley told TV chan­nel Do­or­dar­shan a day after Modi an­nounced the de­mon­e­ti­za­tion. “We have freed up the coun­try from these sources of cor­rup­tion.”

Shame, or guilt?

De­mon­e­tized cur­rency can be de­posited in banks, but im­me­di­ate ac­cess to those funds is se­verely lim­ited and the govern­ment said it will se­verely pe­nal­ize those who de­posit amounts that don’t match their income. Any­one de­posit­ing more than 250,000 ru­pees ($3,700) over the next two months will be flagged for tax in­spec­tion. On the phone with friends, the en­gi­neer said, “I sensed des­per­a­tion in their voices. I knew they also had bribe money” in amounts high enough to raise red flags.

Did he feel shame, or guilt? No. “Tak­ing this ex­tra money as com­mis­sion is a ne­ces­sity” just to meet ex­pected pay­ments and to ad­vance in one’s field, he said while calmly sip­ping whisky and ad­just­ing the light from an over­head chan­de­lier by re­mote in his home in Lucknow, the state cap­i­tal. Each fes­tive sea­son, he said he’s ex­pected to of­fer costly gifts like wrist­watches, fine suits and gold pen­dants to his su­pe­ri­ors, and even their sons. “One needs to keep them happy . ... but would you ex­pect me to give a gift from my salary? No, never.”

The en­gi­neer said the bribes he ac­cepts are most of­ten al­ready writ­ten into price es­ti­mates for projects like road con­struc­tion as a so-called com­mis­sion. “You do not have to ask for it,” he said. Il­licit money changes hands at nearly every pro­ject stage, from the pub­lic ten­der to com­ple­tion. Al­most ev­ery­one ben­e­fits from the “com­mis­sions,” from the high­est min­is­ters to the rank and file, he said. “What I get as bribe is noth­ing com­pared to what oth­ers take,” he said, not­ing the pala­tial homes near his more modest house in an up-mar­ket Lucknow neigh­bor­hood. “I have a small hatch­back car while oth­ers roam around in sedans and SUVs. Don’t our su­pe­ri­ors no­tice this?”

Graft in In­dia is so ac­cepted that it is out in the open. On Sept. 4, another Ut­tar Pradesh bu­reau­crat named Ashok Ku­mar told re­porters in the town of Basti, south­east of Lucknow, that he was giv­ing up on be­com­ing a dis­trict mag­is­trate be­cause he did not have 7 mil­lion ru­pees ($103,000) to pay the bribe. Ku­mar was sus­pended from his job in the Na­tional In­te­gra­tion Depart­ment after mak­ing the state­ment, though he never re­vealed who would have been tak­ing that bribe. The fight against cor­rup­tion has been frustrating for re­tired bu­reau­crat SP Singh, who spent more than 30 years in In­dia’s civil ser­vice try­ing to rid govern­ment de­part­ments of graft. “The ten­dency to take bribe stems from a de­sire to have best in life,” he said. “The lure of lu­cre is so in­tense.” —AP

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