The buck stops with us

Corruption And Us
Last Updated 30 October 2010, 13:05 IST
The buck stops with us

If you have been following the news, you will know that the VK Shunglu Committee has been set up by the Prime Minister’s Office to probe corruption in the recently concluded Commonwealth Games. The committee has been given a broad mandate to find out what went wrong and fix blame. It is supposed to help us learn lessons on why India had to be so publicly embarrassed by broken bridges, leaky roofs, horrible living quarters, and a string of broken promises.

And yet I fear that the key lesson from the episode has already been learned: that it is all OK. Yes, there were embarrassments, some athletes pulled out and the British Queen cancelled her visit, but what does all that matter? Didn’t India win all these medals, and isn’t that what is important? And who really cares about the Queen anyway?

Again, if you have been following the news, you will know that Transparency International (TI) has come out with its annual survey of corruption in the world. India ranks now as the 87th most corrupt country in the world out of 178 countries surveyed (last year we were 84th). We share our ranking with Albania, Jamaica and Liberia, not necessarily company a country that hopes to be a world power would really like.

Perception of corruption

There is also something very interesting about how TI conducts its research. It assesses ‘perceptions of corruption.’ In other words they go about asking Indians (and others) how corrupt we perceive ourselves to be, how many of us had to give bribes, etc. Their results reflect not their perception of our corruption, but our own. What that rank on the table states is that Indians believe that we are more corrupt than half of the world, and slipping.

This is a harsh story, and I doubt that any committee, with the best intentions in the world, will do much to change this point of view. Haven’t we seen many committees come and go? After every major embarrassment we turn around and form a commission of enquiry. Often the people who sit on these commissions are venerable, respectable gentlemen tasked to find out what went wrong and how we are going to fix it.

It takes them years to turn out a report, and by that time we realise that the actual embarrassment of prosecuting those responsible might now be greater than what we suffered earlier, we happily ignore the reports.

At least the Shunglu Committee has been tasked to file a report in three months, and so some hope exists that recommendations may be acted on while the will to do something about this stain on our national honour is still vividly present. And we desperately need some hope that something will be done about corruption in India, because everything is not OK, the medals are all fine and good, and yes the Queen may not be that important to us, but what we are really in danger of losing is our future, and that is something that we should all care about.

What the future thinks

Today we in India are in the unique position of speaking to our future. I guess all countries do so when they communicate with their youth, but the sheer size of our young population makes the effect of our lessons all important. Fully half of our population, close to 600 million people, are below the age of 18.

We are a nation of schoolchildren, and these same schoolchildren will be our engineers, doctors, artists, and teachers tomorrow. What they learn today will affect how they act tomorrow, and it is not just in their classes that they learn, but also from TV, from newspapers, from the example set by you and I: their elders.

If the generation of tomorrow learns the lesson that corruption is all right, that there is no hope of reform of the state, then we are effectively giving them two choices: stay clean and out of the state, or be part of the state and be corrupt. How do we convince them to love such a country? How will we convince them to be proud of being Indian, if this is our gift to them? If being an Indian must mean that we are ashamed of our own selves?

Personal choice

In this regard let me tell you a story. As you will be well aware the state electricity board sends its metre readers to our houses to check the metre once in a while. One such metre-reader arrived at our house. He had learned how to ‘fix’ metres, so that the readings would not exceed a certain amount. He offered to do this ‘service’ at our house for a certain fee.

Unfortunately for him he made this offer to my mother, who still carries the unquestioning upright pride with which she no doubt intimidated both teachers and pupils when she was a Principal in a girl’s school.

Had it been my father, he would probably have laughed, but my mother responded far more vigorously, scolding and abusing the metre-reader for having the temerity to suggest such a crime. Because we had two electricity lines, we used to receive a bill for a few 100 rupees  from that line.

The month after my mother’s encounter with the metre-reader, we received a bill for 10,000 rupees. It took my father eight years to finally sort out the bill. And sorting it out basically meant that the electricity department allowed the real bill to accumulate until it reached the 10,000 mark over the years, and then asked him to pay that instead.
Why do I tell this story? It is not an uncommon one, of honest middle class people who are at the mercy of the state, and who suffer for their honesty. And yet what can I tell you about the effect it has on me or on the children of such parents?

In the end it is not the dishonesty of that one government employee that matters to me, or even the stodgy unwillingness to change that characterised the electricity department as a whole. What remains for me is the honesty of my parents and their willingness to endure a certain amount of hardship because they valued that quality in their life.

Ray of hope

Maybe then this is the one great ray of hope that we have. Common people can challenge the state, can question the path that has been taken, and by the simple force of their will to be uncorrupted, leave an impact on generations to come.

The lessons we learn the best are those taught at home. The examples that impact us most is that of our parents, our families, our closest friends. These are the most important teachers of the generation to come, and there is a name for them: citizens.

I fear that the state will not teach us to be honest, or upstanding. It is, possibly, not even the business of the state to do so. The state is interested in stability, in not rocking the boat. For the government, it is generally more important that we ‘move on’, that the business of life is not disrupted. It is the business of the citizen to ask, “Move on in which direction?” and by asking this question, challenge the idea that things have to continue just as they are.

I asked CV Madhukar at PRS Legislative Research, an organisation that works with MPs to better understand and craft our laws, if he saw some way, a ‘miracle cure’ maybe. Madhukar  said that a “poor policy or legislative framework would ensure corruption, while a good legislative framework is a necessary but not sufficient condition to prevent corruption.” We need good laws, even commissions of enquiry, but that is not enough to make the government hold itself responsible, only citizens demanding accountability can do that.

We all know that corruption in India is not something special to our country. Politics in the United States, currently regarded as very clean now (it is 22 on the TI list) was quite corrupt only a few decades ago, and massively corrupt a century ago. It takes time to weed to such a problem out of society. It requires a strong, well functioning society, and it requires good stories, of honest citizens willing to take a stand.
I believe we have them.

(Published 30 October 2010, 13:05 IST)

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