Bring in more technology-driven system to eliminate corruption

Bring in more technology-driven system to eliminate corruption

India is in the midst of an election fever. Elections – the mother of all corrupt economic activity – have just been completed in Karnataka and they will be held in five more states and the entire country over the next 10 months.

Under the glare of a Thousand Suns, putative industrialists will deliver money bags to politicians. Ebullient aspirants will bring suitcases full of notes to prominent leaders while wanting to be a candidate of the party they perceive will be the winner. Dedicated party workers and voters, many of them poor, get an opportunity to share the loot before casting their ballot. Democracy in today’s context has become first and foremost a game of money, wealth and buying votes.

Once elections are out of the way, efforts are on to recoup the investment. Good governance takes a backseat to wheeling and dealing. In the domain of politician-bureaucrat-businessman, nexus is what is commonly known as wholesale corruption. Politicians with able assistance from bureaucrats disburse natural resources and government contracts to businessmen who stood by them during elections. In the process both of them recover the money generously spent on winning at the ballot box and lay foundations for next election. 

The lower rungs of bureaucracy practice what is popularly known as harassment bribes or retail corruption. They exploit government monopoly and abuse public office for private gain. Citizens quite often have to part with some of their hard earned money to bribe officials for providing a service that is their birthright and constitutionally due to them. And the poor, the downtrodden and the voiceless all chug along with their daily lives struggling to make a living but are nevertheless forced to pay government servants. Street vendors have to provide sweeteners to policemen, small businessmen have to routinely part with some cash to tax authorities and others have to shell out money just to avoid persecution.

Bribery and kickbacks has become so pervasive and ubiquitous in our society and daily life that begs the question – In India, is corruption cultural or institutionalised? In many of the advanced and middle income countries, absence of retail corruption and sporadic occurrence of wholesale corruption makes one conclude that pay-offs are due to a few bad apples or lax regulation. Moreover, these countries have a rule-based system. Experts deem our society as a relationship-based one. In a relationship-based society, who you know matters for opportunities to open up. A vast country and a diverse society like ours whose foundation is built on caste, a lack of trust prevails amongst a majority. And the argument goes that this breeds corruption in our culture. 

Success stories

But success stories in the fight against both retail and wholesale corruption debunk the theory that India is culturally a corrupt society. An exponential increase in supply of trains between cities supplemented by a technology driven ticketing system has largely diminished bribery for tickets in the Railways. Co-operation from devotees, elimination of middleman and computerisation of key functions has eradicated corruption in the temple town of Tirumala. The introduction of Guarantee Services to Citizens Act, enacting laws to confiscate ill gotten wealth and launching technology driven grievance redressal system by state governments are beginning to yield results. More recently, the award of spectrum through a transparent auction process ensured that businesses and government complied with rules to uproot collusion, favouritism and graft in the allocation of a precious natural resource.

The permit raj since independence has undoubtedly institutionalised corruption in our country.  Over the years, bribery has been encouraged either tacitly or demanded blatantly. One can see evidence of such institutionalized corruption in seemingly innocuous transactions like issuance of birth and death certificates, traffic violations, land records, electricity and water supply connections etc. Natural resources that are short in supply and for which there is plentiful demand goes to the highest bidder of party fund. To win a government contract often requires a well connected middleman. This bribe begets bribe system for both routine government actions as well as for large procurement contracts has led to corruption being formalized with specific rates, methods and techniques.    

With the dawn of liberalisation, India is on a transformation from a relationship-based society to a rule-based one. Rule-based societies are characterised by rule of law and governance systems are designed on principles of openness, fairness and efficiency. There is hope for future generations that speeding up reforms and efforts to privatize more services can lead to less graft in government and enhance the chances of our country becoming a meritocratic society.  Alongside, swift action on electoral reform is required to wipe out the scourge of black money. New generation of leaders in politics, bureaucracy, business and civil society must strive to clean up the political process rather than get imbibed in it.

Unfortunately cleansing will be long drawn and an arduous task. There are more rags to riches story in politics than in any other profession indicative of the entrenched interests in the system. But with fortitude, strong will and political activism especially from youth along with media exposés can revolutionise our democracy with a responsible political system. A transparent electoral process and rapid transformation to a rule-based society can indeed eliminate wholesale corruption. Honest and sincere politicians with the help of top echelons in bureaucracy and support from citizens will then be able to end retail corruption in a heartbeat.