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