Cul­ture of Sleaze

South Asia is char­ac­ter­ized by a vi­cious cir­cle where a highly elit­ist and un­ac­count­able po­lit­i­cal cul­ture re­mains un­chal­lenged.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Jamil Nasir

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.

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