Culture of Sleaze
South Asia is characterized by a vicious circle where a highly elitist and unaccountable political culture remains unchallenged.
If corruption is left unchecked, South Asia is doomed to chaos, conflict and anarchy.
“Merely shouting from the house tops that everybody is corrupt creates an atmosphere of corruption. People feel that they are in a climate of corruption and they get corrupted themselves,” Jawaharlal Nehru is reported to have said shortly after the independence of India. Perhaps his words are very much applicable to the entire South Asian region where everybody shouts about corruption but much of the shouting has, perhaps, made us immune to the negative impacts of corruption
on society and development.
But perhaps the gap between rhetoric and reality is increasing with each passing day. “Hardly a speech is delivered in South Asia without the mention of the need to fight corruption in the region. Yet despite the lofty promises, corruption is on the rise,” notes ‘Fighting Corruption in South Asia: Building Accountability’ – a report released by Transparency International (TI) in May this year. According to the report, South Asia is the most corrupt region in the world. These findings are based on the analyses of 70 institutions across six south Asian countries – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan
The problem lies in the fact that even democracies in South Asian countries are sham democracies. They are not inclusive at all. Few families dominate the political landscape. People at large are not stakeholders.
and the Maldives.
According to the Global Corruption Barometer 2013 of TI, the citizens of South Asia consider that corruption in the public sector is a serious concern. Two-thirds think that corruption has increased in South Asia in the last two years. In 2011, 39 percent of the people perceived that the actions of their governments to fight corruption were effective. The number has gone down to 20 percent in 2013. Political parties are perceived to be the most corrupt, followed by the police, parliament, public officials and the judiciary on the corruption perception index. About 60 percent of the people believe that their governments are run by the very few big entities, and people do not have a say in matters that affect their lives. People cannot hold the ruling elite accountable for corruption due to their powerlessness.
The problem lies in the fact that even democracies in South Asian countries are sham democracies. They are not inclusive at all. Few families dominate the political landscape. People at large are not stakeholders in such democratic systems due to deep social, economic and political inequities. Their powerlessness is thus mainly responsible for the low accountability of the ruling elite in South Asia. The South Asian region is characterized by a vicious circle where a highly elitist and unaccountable political culture remains unchallenged, the TI report says. The systems of governance in South Asia thus require transparency where the decisions and policies of the governments can be scrutinized. It would be possible only through potent laws of right to information and whistle-blowing. “Corruption flourishes in darkness,” the report says.
Five out of six countries analyzed by the report have the right to information laws in place, Pakistan being the first one to have adopted this legislation in 2002. But such laws fall short of international standards, the TI report mentions. It further emphasizes that legislation to give protection to whistleblowers is highly important to expose corruption and fraud inside organizations but in South Asia only India and Bangladesh have dedicated whistle-blowing laws in place. India has just enacted it in 2014.
Unfortunately, just like the RTI laws, these laws are also weak. They have not fully become operational even in India and Bangladesh. Without effective whistle-blower legislation, which provides immunity to whistle-blowers against criminal, civil and administrative proceedings, corrupt deeds in public-sector organizations cannot be exposed timely. The TI report suggests that Pakistan, Nepal, the Maldives and Sri Lanka need to develop comprehensive whistle blower-protection legislation. India needs to broaden the base of such legislation while Bangladesh should take steps to enhance awareness about whistleblowing legislation already in place. The report also recommends that South Asian countries should take steps to strengthen the independence of anti-corruption agencies and the judiciary.
The menace of corruption also needs to be looked into as an economic phenomenon. Setting the incentive structures right and changing the rules of the game can go a long way in tackling corruption effectively. Several practical proposals have been floated by a number of South Asian economists to curb corruption. For example, Mr. Kaushik Basu, who has worked as the chief economic advisor of India, has proposed that bribes should be divided into two basic types, i.e. harassment bribes and non-harassment bribes.
Harassment bribes are the bribes which people pay to get a service what they are legally entitled to get. In case of harassment bribes, the act of giving the bribe should be declared a legitimate legal activity. The giver of a harassment bribe is not happy over the payment of bribe for obtaining his legal rights and if the law does not consider the bribe giver guilty, all punishment of the act of bribery is heaped on the bribe taker and the bribe giver will have an incentive to disclose the act of bribery, the argument runs. The change in law on these lines will deter bribe takers from indulging in bribe and incidence of bribery will be reduced.
Besides the simple proposal of Mr. Basu, Professor Jagdish Bhagwati, an American economist of Indian origin, has been arguing in his writings that over-regulation of the economy is the chief reason for rampant corruption. He says the bureaucratic corruption
in India is mainly due to the ‘permit raj’ prevalent in India. Cumbersome rules, convoluted procedures and licensing requirements for import, export and investment, etc. give ample power to public servants and politicians.
The insight from economists like Mr. Bhagwati is that the economy should be deregulated as far as possible to reduce corruption. Recently Meghand Desai, again an economist by profession, in his oped ‘Tackling corruption seriously’ writes that removal of black money in the domestic economy can be an important step towards tackling corruption. His proposal is that all existing currency should be demonetized and it should be replaced with newly printed currency having no similarity to the old currency. All bank deposits get automatically converted while for the currency outside the banking system, zero coupon bonds should be issued by the government. Such bonds should be marketable after a certain interval; their price will thus reflect the discount and would be a type of tax on black money determined by the market forces.
The reasons for the endemic corruption in the South Asian region are many. It may be argued that corruption is rampant due to partimonialism in South Asia. People think in terms of extended families, groups, communities, castes and tribes. Thus the cultural approach to corruption emphasizes that it stems from cultural norms and corruption levels are comparatively higher in societies where the partimonialism-human propensity to favor families and friends – reigns. According to Francis Fukuyama, partimonialism is the main stumbling block to the supremacy of law and effective accountability of the governments.
Colonial experience – the culture of baksheesh and plunder - is another source. Legal origins are also associated with the rampancy of corruption in a society. High potential for rent-seeking, huge discretionary powers in the hands of public functionaries and weak accountability mechanisms are some other potent sources of corruption. Multiple sources of corruption mean that it cannot be talked through a simple approach. The TI report rightly emphasizes the need for access to information and whistle-blowing legislation besides politically empowering the people by making the political institutions inclusive.