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India's 'season of scams'

Soutik Biswas | 17:39 UK time, Wednesday, 17 November 2010

A Raja

There should be zero tolerance for corruption, India's well-meaning law minister Veerapa Moily told a meeting of federal investigators last year. In a forceful pitch, the erudite Mr Moily invoked some 15 writers and leaders, including Plato, Gandhi, Lincoln and Gladstone, to drive home the point that endemic corruption destroys societies. "While we all know that the cancer of corruption has seeped into the blood stream of our polity, the million dollar question that stares us in the face is what can be done other than what we have been doing in the name of combating this evil all along," wondered Mr Moily with his characteristic flourish.

All of this week, many Indians, long inured to corruption, have been asking the same question. A familiar "season of scams" has returned in a depressing re-run: the "mother of all scams", as the media never tires of describing a new one, is to do with telecoms, involving a senior minister who has resigned. In a damning report, federal auditors have accused Andimuthu Raja of underselling mobile phone "spectrum" licenses worth billions of dollars. Mr Raja denies the allegation and was feted by his supporters on his return to his native city of Chennai. The auditors believe the actions of his department could have cost India some $40bn in lost revenues.

As India has liberalised its economy and modernised, corruption has apparently spread to every area of life. Politicians and sports officials forged papers, bought stuff at inflated prices and generally cooked the books, it is alleged, in the run-up to the recently concluded Commonwealth Games. Retired senior army officers and relatives of senior politicians are accused of helping themselves to apartments meant for war widows in Mumbai. A building in Delhi collapses - killing more than 60 people - because municipal officials and police apparently looked the other way as the builder kept adding illegal floors. Two top teams of India's showpiece private cricket tournament, the Indian Premier League, are expelled after they are accused of fudging their ownership and financial details. Political corruption is rife: in the current elections in Bihar, India's poorest and most backward state, more than a quarter of candidates from the main political parties, by their own admission, are millionaires.

Corruption in India is the main route to power and wealth. It possibly begins with the symbiotic relationship between the corruption of the poor and the corruption of the rich. One trades political power for money; the other trades money for political power. But in both cases, as an analyst says, "something public - a vote or an office or decision - is sold for private gain".

India has been talking about cracking down on corruption since independence, when the first anti-corruption law came into being. In 1964, a landmark report on corruption by a former minister spoke of the "growth of corruption" and the need to arrest the "deterioration in the standards of public life". Six decades after independence India ranks 87 on Transparency International's latest Corruption Perceptions Index, below Ghana and Rwanda.

The standards of public life have sunk - big business and politics enrich each other, and the judiciary and army is no longer free of taint. Many of India's politicians and civil servants and policemen are among the most corrupt in the world. Indians have wearily accepted graft as a fact of life - many of them believe that corrupt officials and policemen are the ones who perform most effectively as they work the system better. On a train journey many years ago, I heard a young fellow passenger loudly reassuring his friend's mother that her son's new appointment in a government office was good news because he would have abundant opportunities to "earn more than his wages". The old woman smiled wanly. When you live in a climate of corruption, it's easy to get corrupted.

Predictably, there is no dearth of institutions to check corruption in India. There's the federal investigative agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), also tasked with bringing corrupt bureaucrats, politicians and policemen to book. There's the federal vigilance commission, headed by an independent ombudsman. Government ministries have vigilance officers scrutinising contracts. States have anti-corruption bureaus manned by police officers. A landmark right to information law promises much in making government accountable. Yet the cancer continues to spread, eating into the vitals of Indian life and polity.

Even when some of the wrongdoers are brought to book, nothing much happens. India has a sorry record in prosecuting people for corruption. There are more than 9,000 cases brought by the CBI pending in various courts. More than 2,000 of these cases have been pending for more than a decade. A large number involve public servants and their aides and associates who have been caught with their hands in the till. Justice delayed means the corrupt go scot-free. When it comes to convictions, things are grimmer - India has a conviction rate of about 42%, which must be one of the lowest in the world. The wheels of justice grind so slowly that most victims give up.

When institutions fail or are subverted by their political masters, the time comes to wage an old-fashioned war against graft. This war has to be fought by the people. Right now, it's only a section of the media and a clutch of brave freedom of information whistle-blowers who are fighting the battle. India - especially the acquiescent middle-class India of empty Facebook rage - has to begin believing that it doesn't have to live with corruption. Fumiko Nagano of the World Bank says transforming social norms is the key to fighting corruption. Indians have to change - and fight much harder - to get rid of the scourge.


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