Sun, Aug 21, 2011 - Page 13 News List

Greasing palms

As Indian activist Anna Hazare leaves prison to continue his protest, residents in Delhi explain how rampant bribery forms a tiresome, angering part of everyday life

THE GUARDIAN, New Delhi, India

Supporters take photographs of veteran Indian social activist Anna Hazare after he left Tihar jail in New Delhi on Friday.

Photo: Reuters

Vishal is an ordinary man with an ordinary story of corruption in India. He lives in east Delhi, part of the traffic-choked sprawl of India’s capital. He owns a fried chicken takeaway, similar to thousands of others that have sprung up in recent years to serve the tastes of the burgeoning middle class.

And he faces an ordinary Indian daily routine of petty corruption. The number of people Vishal has to pay off is bewildering. There are the local beat constables who take free lunches, and the more senior police officers who can cause problems with opening hours. They take 10,000 rupees (US$220) on the 10th of each month to allow Vishal to stay open late.

Then there are the officials from various local authorities who also receive regular payments — about US$80 a month — to ensure that health, safety and hygiene inspections go smoothly.

“Of the 40,000 rupees I earn a month from my restaurant, I pay at least a third in bribes,” Vishal, 26, said on Friday.

Bribery also extends into his personal life. Vishal has two children and to get the eldest into the best local school he paid a “donation” of 25,000 rupees in cash to the headmaster.

A driving license needed another bribe. Getting an appointment with a competent public doctor cost a substantial amount. Then there are the traffic police. Every other week Vishal says he is stopped, told he has committed an offense and made to pay 100 rupees, the standard fee to avoid “too much bother.”

“I am so disappointed [about] everything you have to pay,” he said. “And no one does anything. The politicians won’t do anything because they are all corrupt too.”

Such sentiments are widespread in India and explain the outpouring of anger over recent days as tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest about the arrest of anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare.

The grinding daily routine of petty corruption is at the root.

“You pay for a birth certificate, a death certificate,” said Varun Mishra, a 30-year-old software engineer and one of thousands who marched in Delhi yesterday to support Hazare. “All your life you pay. And for what? For things that should be free.”

Hazare, 74, has harnessed this grassroots frustration to launch a popular movement. Having been jailed as a threat to public order, he went on hunger strike and refused to leave prison when released. He finally left jail on Friday, having been granted permission to hold a 15-day fast in a public park.

His public relations team has run rings around clumsy and slow official spokesmen. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has an impeccable reputation for personal probity but has looked distant and out of touch.

Hazare is campaigning for a powerful anti-corruption ombudsman with the right to investigate senior politicians, officials and judges. His critics say this would be undemocratic, and worry about the division of powers. But for people like restaurateur Vishal, Hazare is a hero. “At least he is doing something,” he said. “No one else is.”

Though bribery, or “graft,” is a fact of life for more or less everybody in India, the demonstrators are largely urban, educated and relatively well-off. “What you are seeing on the street is a middle-class rebellion,” said Mohan Guruswamy, a former senior official in the ministry of finance and founder of the Centre for Policy Alternatives think tank.

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