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

Sun, Aug 21, 2011 - Page 13

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.

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, 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.

“We want a great country, stronger than the US, UK and Australia,” said 18-year-old Sushil Kumar as he waited for the protest march from Hazare’s jail to start. “India will be great, with its traditions, its culture. But we have to beat corruption.”