The Road to Cor­rup­tion

Cor­rup­tion is so en­trenched in South Asia that it has be­come a way of life.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By S.G. Ji­la­nee

To­day, South Asia is al­most syn­ony­mous with cor­rup­tion. But it was not always so. Dur­ing Bri­tish rule, cor­rup­tion was a prac­ti­cally un­known phe­nom­e­non. Gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees of lower grades some­times ac­cepted a few coins as ‘buk­sheesh’ from a sat­is­fied client – not for do­ing some­thing il­le­gal but for ef­fi­cient per­for­mance of duty such as, say, a post­man vis­it­ing to de­liver a tele­gram at mid­night. Of­fi­cers would not even touch tainted money.

How­ever, things changed af­ter Par­ti­tion. Am­bi­tious devel­op­ment schemes were un­der­taken. As aid in cash from in­ter­na­tional donors be­gan to flow in quan­ti­ties never dreamed of be­fore, val­ues be­gan to erode. The temp­ta­tion of la dolce vita – a good life – was ir­re­sistible. There were also op­por­tu­ni­ties ga­lore. And dis­cre­tionary pow­ers cre­ated more av­enues. So, a ‘fee’ be­gan to be col­lected even for such ser­vices which were a ci­ti­zen's nor­mal due, like di­ag­nos­tic ser­vice in gov­ern­ment hos­pi­tals or driv­ers' li­censes.

More­over, with in­de­pen­dence, politi­cians en­tered the field of so­cial ac­tiv­i­ties as new play­ers. With them came in­flu­ence ped­dling. How­ever, in the early years of in­de­pen­dence, cor­rup­tion among politi­cians was rare, if at all. In In­dia, it was al­most ‘un­known’, per­haps be­cause In­di­ans

were ded­i­cated peo­ple who had suf­fered in the in­de­pen­dence strug­gle and were im­bued with the spirit to serve.

In­dia's lead­ers, – par­tic­u­larly, its prime min­is­ters – from Jawa­har­lal Nehru to Man­mo­han Singh – all had squeaky clean rep­u­ta­tions. And all sported an aus­tere life­style. Ra­jiv Gandhi was the only ex­cep­tion un­der whose stew­ard­ship the Bo­fors scan­dal hap­pened. The mega scam re­lated to the al­leged kick­backs from a Swedish arms firm Bo­fors AB for win­ning a $1.3 bil­lion bid to sup­ply 140 odd155 mm field how­itzer. The amount of kick­backs was es­ti­mated at $11 mil­lion, paid to top politi­cians and key de­fense of­fi­cials. It is said that the cor­rup­tion scan­dal caused the de­feat of the Congress in the 1989 elec­tions. If so, the 2014 rout of the Congress of­fers a strik­ing par­al­lel, be­cause this was also due to mas­sive cor­rup­tion in the party.

A study con­ducted by Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional in 2005 on cor­rup­tion in In­dia found that "more than 62 per­cent of In­di­ans had first­hand ex­pe­ri­ence of pay­ing bribes or in­flu­ence ped­dling to get jobs done in public of­fices suc­cess­fully."

This is the type of cor­rup­tion where one has to pay ex­tra for do­ing the right kind of thing. An­other type is where money changes hands for get­ting a wrong thing done. That is what cor­rup­tion is all about. In In­dia, for ex­am­ple, the heavy ve­hi­cles that ply on long routes are said to be forced to pay bil­lions in bribes an­nu­ally to nu­mer­ous reg­u­la­tory au­thor­i­ties and at check points on the in­ter­state high­ways. But this could not hap­pen if the truck­ers were them­selves clean be­cause in that case, they would protest against ha­rass­ment and ex­tor­tion.

In South Asia, all gov­ern­ment de­part­ments are tainted with cor­rup­tion. In gov­ern­ment hos­pi­tals, cor­rup­tion pre­vails in the form of non­avail­abil­ity of medicines, dif­fi­culty in get­ting ad­mis­sion, con­sul­ta­tions with doc­tors, etc. In­come tax and civil en­gi­neer­ing (con­struc­tion and build­ing) are some other de­part­ments no­to­ri­ous for cor­rup­tion.

The process of ten­ders and al­lot­ting con­tracts is also a source of large-scale cor­rup­tion. The Bo­fors was a thing of the past. Much more has hap­pened in re­cent times. The fod­der scam in Bi­har is one such ex­am­ple where about $160 mil­lion were em­bez­zled from the gov­ern­ment trea­sury by show­ing fake pur­chases of fod­der for the an­i­mal hus­bandry depart­ment. Among other scams that made head­lines were the $5.2 bil­lion 2G Spec­trum scam and the Com­mon­wealth Games scam in­volv­ing $12 bil­lion.

Pak­istan shares much with In­dia, in­clud­ing cor­rup­tion. The in­sti­tu­tions and peo­ple in­volved in cor­rupt ac­tiv­i­ties – mostly politi­cians and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials – and their meth­ods are the same. But Pak­istan is way ahead in in­ge­nu­ity, such as ghost schools and ghost teach­ers in whose name salaries are drawn and mis­ap­pro­pri­ated by of­fi­cials of the ed­u­ca­tion depart­ment.

In Pak­istan, the first story about cor­rup­tion that made waves in the early 1950s was about a Chevro­let BelAir car ac­quired by the then Sindh chief min­is­ter, Ayub Khuhro, pre­sum­ably by du­bi­ous means. With the pas­sage of time and the in­flow of Amer­i­can dol­lars, cor­rup­tion bur­geoned. It cli­maxed dur­ing Be­nazir Bhutto's two stints as prime min­is­ter, when her con­sort sanc­ti­fied it by earn­ing the so­bri­quet of ‘Mr. 10 Per­cent’ for him­self. The New York Times pub­lished a lengthy spe­cial re­port – House of Graft – de­tail­ing cor­rup­tion by Be­nazir and the Zar­daris, in­clud­ing the chateau in Nor­mandy bought in the name of Asif Zar­dari's mother.

How­ever, there is a sharp con­trast between the ways In­dia and Pak­istan grap­ple with the prob­lem. In In­dia, cul­prits are not spared, re­gard­less of their sta­tus. Thus, Union Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Min­is­ter A Raja, MP of the DMK Kan­i­mozhi and a com­mu­ni­ca­tions sec­re­tary – be­sides oth­ers – were de­tained and pros­e­cuted in the 2G Spec­trum case. Sim­i­larly, MP Suresh Kal­madi was in­dicted in the Com­mon­wealth Games scan­dal and dis­missed from the pri­mary mem­ber­ship of the Congress party. Bi­har chief min­is­ter, Lalu Prasad was sen­tenced to five years in jail in the fod­der scam.

In In­dia, the Cen­tral Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion is an in­de­pen­dent and pow­er­ful in­sti­tu­tion. No­body in­ter­feres in its op­er­a­tions. Be­sides, there are peo­ple like Anna Hazare, who or­ga­nize mass ag­i­ta­tion against cor­rup­tion.

Anti-cor­rup­tion laws in Pak­istan are used by the rulers to ha­rass the op­po­si­tion. The Fed­eral In­ves­ti­ga­tion Agency is ham­strung. If an in­ves­ti­gat­ing of­fi­cer tries to be too smart, he is trans­ferred. Amnesty is given to the cor­rupt for po­lit­i­cal ends. The Na­tional Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Or­di­nance is a glar­ing ex­am­ple of this trend. At a sin­gle stroke, it took a horde of of­fend­ers off the hook. The Supreme Court an­nulled the NRO and re­stored the sta­tus quo ante, but the gov­ern­ment did not re­vive the cases.

In Bangladesh as well, cor­rup­tion is com­mon in the de­part­ments where it has been tra­di­tional and the meth­ods are the same as in In­dia and Pak­istan. The only ma­jor scam the coun­try has wit­nessed is the one re­lated to the Padma Bridge. The World Bank turned down the pro­posed loan for the con­struc­tion of the bridge af­ter it found ‘cred­i­ble ev­i­dence’ point­ing to a high-level cor­rup­tion con­spir­acy among Bangladeshi gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, ex­ec­u­tives of SNC-Lavalin – the con­trac­tor, and pri­vate in­di­vid­u­als, in con­nec­tion with the Padma Mul­ti­pur­pose Bridge Project.

Cor­rup­tion scan­dals in Nepal have been de­scribed in graphic de­tail by the Econ­o­mist, such as ‘resur­fac­ing’ of roads, where the con­trac­tor was paid but prac­ti­cally no work was done; build­ings were paid for but were never built or sim­ply re­painted and passed off as new; the same roads re­built – as if from scratch – ev­ery year; and recorded as one item the con­struc­tion of a road from A to B and then again, on a sep­a­rate line, the road from B to A.

The Mal­dives is brack­eted with Pak­istan in the TI cor­rup­tion in­dex with 134 points. Cor­rup­tion in the coun­try is ram­pant but it is petty. In Sri Lanka, public pro­cure­ment is a ma­jor sec­tor where cor­rup­tion is preva­lent. But such prac­tices are preva­lent even be­yond South Asia. Of all coun­tries in South Asia, Bhutan is the least cor­rupt. It has scored 5.7 in TI's per­ceived cor­rup­tion in­dex in the re­gion on a scale of 0 (highly cor­rupt) to 10 (very clean).

Cor­rup­tion is de­nounced for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons. Heavy pun­ish­ments are also awarded. But so long as the goal is to be rich, it will thrive – and more so in South Asia.

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