Corruption in India, Anna Hazare and the Jan Lokpal Bill

Note: This is a very “thinking aloud” article and now that I’m done and it’s 2 AM and  I have a feeling I’m saying something silly somewhere in here. I just don’t know exactly what. If you can point it out and explain, I would be very grateful.

It has just been announced that the government has agreed to Anna Hazare‘s demands to set up a joint-committee to draft the new Lokpal bill consisting of 5 members from government and 5 from civil society, with a co-chairman from amongst the activists*. This is probably good news even from the point of view of those of us who were less excited by this agitation than most. However, a little more analysis seems warranted.

I will freely admit that this whole thing caught me entirely by surprise, since I don’t really keep up with Indian mass media. I stick to the web and even there, rely on social media to get me any really urgent stories. So when people started talking about this as “India’s Tahrir Square moment,” I gaped a bit and frantically started reading up, relaxing only once I figured out that that, as we would call it here in college, was “absolute fart”.

The central concern here is the Lokpal (now, Jan Lokpal) bill, and you should all go read that wiki page. Also this and this. This is probably one reading assignment too many for one post, but Pratap Bhanu Mehta has an excellent (if, shall we say, written from a position of privilige) take on the issue at the Indian Express, here. I’ll wait.

Done? Ok. Does anyone yet realize that this bill will create what is essentially a Jedi Council run by a lot of not-very-Jedi people? (Not that that worked out so well either, of course.) It can initiate prosecution, file FIRs, integrate itself with the anti-corruption wing of the CBI and the central vigilance commission, and mandate a minimum sentence of 5 years and a maximum of life imprisonment for any case. Certainly sets up a deterrent, huh?

Corruption in India, at least, can be broadly divided into 2 types: first, the “greasing of palms” necessary to get most basic services  or “baksheesh”, that poses an annoyance to almost every citizen who has to come into contact with a government agent-from the RTO who evaluates your driving to the policeman who comes to verify your address for your passport. This is usually necessary irrespective of the legality of your actions (although more often than not it’s done where only minor issues remain). The second type is large, institutional corruption, where you bribe an official for a government contract, or to approve your factory despite it not clearing regulations etc. Of course, even institutions that do everything right might need to pay up just to keep things moving, and even individuals might be paying for special favours or to make someone look the other way. But the point is that the vast majority of citizen’s annoyances are with the former, and few top down legal actions are likely to affect these much. Go to www.ipaidabribe.com (a wonderful initiative). Go look through the reports of bribes paid. The vast majority fall into this category.

So what is my point? My point is, the appropriate metaphor for the state of Indian corruption is not some ravenous dragon terrorizing the innocent villagers. It is a million little mosquitoes biting intermittently at a weary populace as they trudge to work every day. A big fu*king sword might be useful against a dragon, but the mosquitoes are probably just going to wait until you tire yourself out by waving it around.

An ineffective weapon against (most) corruption in India

Of course, a lot of this depends on just how the system is going to be implemented, and I’m thoroughly clueless about that, so this might be unfair criticism. It might be that the system also involves introducing technology that can track “choke points” of paperwork. It might be that it can set up an efficient and responsive bureaucracy that will basically do what the vigilance commission has always been meant to do, only properly. I certainly hope so. I just don’t think I can count on it.

PS: OK, so the important caveat here is that it is the latter sort of institutional corruption that arguably matters more as far as economic growth, safety, environment and a whole host of other things are concerned. And this bill will hopefully make it easier to prosecute that kind of case and reduce the levels of corruption there. Which is why I don’t think this is a bad thing, by any means. I just think it’s likely to do a lot less for most ordinary people than they think.

PS2: And, of course, I realize that the ipaidabribe website is prone to a sampling bias that favours this sort of corruption.

*”Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee will be the chairman of the committee that will also include law minister Veerappa Moily, telecom minister Kapil Sibal, home minister P Chidambaram and water resources minister Salman Khurshid as members.Besides Hazare, those representing the civil society in the joint committee will be eminent lawyers Shanti Bhushan, Prasant Bhushan, retired Supreme Court Judge Santosh Hege and RTI activist Arvind Kejriwal. Shanti Bhushan will be the co-Chairman.”-TOI.