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

There are reports in local media that call centers and other back office operations in IT hubs such as Gurgaon, a satellite town of Delhi, and Bengaluru, the southern city, have faced staffing problems with up to half of workers joining the protests. Teachers, lawyers and medical professionals have also featured prominently.

Support for Hazare is particularly strong among those who have benefited most from India’s recent breakneck economic development but are frustrated by a largely unreformed public sector that delivers poor and haphazard services. They are often the young. Many of those who waited outside Tihar jail in Delhi to greet Hazare on his triumphant exit yesterday were in their teens or even younger. One 12-year-old carried a placard saying “save my future.”

Tens of millions of school and college-leavers pour into the Indian job market each year. State institutions have not kept pace with aspirations raised by years of rapid economic growth and with skill levels low and good jobs scare, unrest could rise.

Senior Congress party politicians last week argued that some level of graft was inevitable in a developing economy. But analysts said the extent of the problem in India — which ranks at 87 out of 178 on the campaign group Transparency International’s index of corruption — is unique.

“India is comparable to China, doing better than Russia, less well than Brazil,” said Robin Hodess, the group’s research director. “But bureaucratic and petty corruption is extreme in India.”

Some say India’s generally patchy law enforcement is to blame. “We have courts, a parliament and a long tradition of democracy ... but only very few people are ever held to account,” Guruswamy said. Last week a senior judge faced unprecedented impeachment proceedings, 25 years after the alleged offense.

Others say those who pay the bribes are to blame too. One supreme court lawyer who refused demands for commissions in return for sanctioning payment for work he had done for the government said that giving in to corruption could be down to “deep powerlessness” or simply a “I just want to get on with my day” type of attitude. “As Indians we see corruption as something that permeates our lives, like air pollution, but we need to think much more carefully about it,” he said.

Raghu Thoniparambil, who runs the Web site ipaidabribe.com, pointed out that corruption in the private sector was just as prevalent. “All these protests are very inspiring but will people really change? I don’t know,” he said.

Less ambitious and spectacular measures could have more impact than the ombudsman office Hazare and his followers want to create, Thoniparambil argues.

As well as perceptions of general corruption, Transparency International also compiles an index of nations where bribes are paid most frequently, particularly in business. India ranks 19 out of 22, above Mexico, Russia and China.

Manu Joseph, editor of the news magazine Open, speaks of hypocrisy. “The Indian relationship with corruption is very complex and politicians are representative of society as a whole,” he said.

But the widespread anger is also due to a sense that modern India not only deserves better but needs to at least moderate rampant corruption to compete on the world stage.

The most high-profile cases have already damaged the nation’s image sufficiently to slow economic growth. One text message circulating in India last week focused on the huge sums of “black money” illegally stashed by wealthy Indians in overseas assets and bank accounts. The return of these funds could pay for “Oxford-like universities,” borders stronger than “the China wall” and roads “like in Paris,” it said.

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