By Swati Chopra
In India, corruption is something we all learn to live with. But wait! We need not be resigned to it or cynical. Instead of breast-beating over the sorry state of affairs, let's explore the solutions. Maybe there are no satisfactory answers to our questions. Let's ask them anyway.
SPIRITUAL GUIDE TO PROSPERITY
Do you think you never have enough, no matter how hard you work? You may have unconsciously fostered a 'poverty mentality' in your life that will forever keep you imprisoned within a sense of lack, no matter how much you earn or how many material possessions you acquire. It may also be the point where the possibility of corruption first enters one's life.
Roy Eugene Davis, a direct disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda , says in Seven Lessons in Conscious Living: ''Every devotee of God should be prosperous.'' He goes on to give some attitudinal changes following which one can live truly fulfilling lives:
• When working or providing a service for which you will receive money, give value for value received. Ideally, the work you do or the service you perform should be enjoyable, in accordance with your skills and abilities and should have constructive effects.
• Don't spend money. To spend (Latin expendere, use up or consume) is to waste. Exchange the value that money represents for what you consider to be of value to you. Avoid buying nonessentials.
• Save a specific amount of what you have or earn. Invest it to earn more money for future use.
• On a regular schedule, freely yet thoughtfully give a portion of what you have or earn to responsible, well-managed endeavors which serve the public good and assist individuals in need.
• Give generously from your awareness of being prosperous and thankfully accept the abundance that life provides for you.
• Avoid the beggarly attitude of thinking that you can, or need to bargain with God—that when you make a financial contribution to a worthy cause or volunteer your services you will receive in proportion to your giving or even an excess.
• Learn to be affluent-to always be in a continuous flow of resources and supportive events, circumstances and wholesome relationships for the highest good of yourself, others, the planet, and the universe.
• Transcend the idea of duality, which is the erroneous opinion that god is separate from you or anyone else in the world.
Let me begin with a confession. It is precisely to avoid writing about issues like corruption that I did not join mainstream journalism. And the going has been good. A bit of tai chi, a dash of yoga with walking meditation thrown in, and I was well on my way to nirvana. Or so I thought.
The universe, with characteristic irreverence, moved on its well-oiled joints to burst my self-righteous, 'Oh-I-am-so-spiritual-and-therefore-so-perfect' bubble. Seeing a babu in a government office counting soiled fifty rupee notes in full view of all and sundry did for me what all the grainy Tehelka tapes could not. It brought home the sordid reality that is corruption. Corruption that is all around us, omnipresent, almost like a distorted, antithetical version of God for the New Millennium.
Says Aresh Shirali, the thirty-something executive editor of A&M magazine: 'Like most people of my age group, I am nauseated by the epidemic proportions corruption has acquired in India. It is literally under every stone you turn.' It is also in every alley you turn into, every nook and cranny you might care to peep into. It happens as much in broad daylight as it does behind closed doors. It is as much a part of my life as it is of yours.
It may be as much because of you as it is because of me.
Television personality Priya Tendulkar who became a household name in the 1980s with her portrayal of a middle class woman up in arms against corruption in the popular teleserial Rajni says: 'If there is corruption in society, each one of us is responsible. It is wrong to blame the system. Why do we separate ourselves from the system? Don't we vote the corrupt to power? Don't we endlessly suffer from all deprivations and refuse to raise our voice? And then when it becomes too much, we crib.'
However, G.R. Khairnar who as the deputy municipal commissioner of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation earned for himself the epithet 'demolition man' due to his penchant for razing unauthorized constructions begs to differ: 'I don't think the common man is responsible. I don't blame the man who shells out money so that he doesn't have to spend half his day in a queue at the municipal office. Is it not more pertinent to ask how these serpentine queues are created? Are we short of staff in an overpopulated country with a large section educated but unemployed? This theory that people feed the monster of corruption is eyewash.'
The fact remains that the individual can certainly not shirk responsibility. For the individual is the smallest unit in this complex web of interrelationships we call 'society'. If we are all interconnected, how can a minority (or a majority, as the case might be) only be responsible for a phenomenon as widespread as corruption?
While culpability might be a debatable issue, what causes corruption to spread its tentacles in society is not. S.K. Sharma, managing trustee of People First, the advocacy wing of the NGO Development Alternatives, categorically states: 'Corruption is the symptom of a disease that has as its progenitors over-centralization of power, non-transparency in all government functions and lack of accountability.'
Lack of transparency gets majority votes for being the single largest factor that provides an ideal breeding ground for corruption. Crores from development projects are siphoned off annually to Swiss bank accounts before anybody notices anything amiss.
Says Aresh Shirali: 'Corruption thrives on opacity. To give an example, people marketing computer networking software found that 'corporate transparency' is not the sales pitch that works with the top bosses. But the same people are more than willing to invest in networking if told that it would help them manipulate information. This sort of a mindset is ingrained in us in the form of a belief in an 'information pyramid' that causes information to move according to hierarchy. In my view, the information revolution is all about flattening this pyramid and providing access to information for as many people as possible.'
Flattening the information pyramid is something H.D. Shourie, founder of Delhi-based Common Cause, has been trying to do. Shourie is a man with a mission that refuses to let him retire in peace even at the ripe old age of 90. Among other things, he has been campaigning incessantly to bring a semblance of transparency in the dealings of political parties. 'I think political funding is at the root of all corruption. I have been campaigning for transparency in this. According to Section 13 (A) of the Income Tax Act, every political party is expected to maintain accounts of their income and expenditure and get them audited regularly. Some time back, I wrote to all the parties questioning them about this. So far, I have received only four replies-two from hill parties, an acknowledgment from the Congress and an affirmative reply from the Samata Party, which has since become meaningless in the light of the Tehelka expose.'
Shourie has given the call to all Indians to join hands with him in demanding clean politics: 'The voice of the common man must rise. Hit out at political corruption because the largest quantum of money is transacted there. You can write letters to the Prime Minister and also to your MPs and MLAs. Strike at them directly and let them know how you feel. Fight to effect changes in the funding system, for example. I feel that a person should be able to make an income tax exempted donation to a political party, just as you can donate money to the Prime Minister's relief fund. That will discourage bribery in the name of 'party fund'.'
Corrupt politicians often found themselves at the receiving end in the late Behram Contractor's popular 'Busybee' column. In one of his columns, he wrote with characteristic wit: 'Good harvest, bad harvest, they are the cause. If an ambitious project for public welfare fails, what did you expect with such politicians in charge. If money for a project disappears, it is because they have lined their pockets with the money. If the flyovers are not coming up at an appropriate pace, blame the politicians. If they are coming up too fast and there are too many, suspect the politicians. Sometimes it seems they cannot do anything right.'
While our politics may be the dirtiest, the very structure of our polity is top heavy, thereby concentrating too much power in too few hands. This increases the chances of power being misused and manipulated for vested interests, totally bypassing the greater common good. One practical alternative, according to S.K. Sharma, is to: 'Decentralize. In urban areas, implement the much talked about Bhagidari system. Enact a law to make the neighborhood committee the first municipality. Give them the power to collect dues and empower them to be the first authority to sanction any building alterations. Empowering the people and putting them in charge of their own neighborhood will reduce corruption as well as make administration effective because that is where the administrators themselves live.'
Giving an example, Sharma says: 'In Kolkata's Salt Lake City, if any building work begins, all the women of the area collect and do not let the work proceed until they are shown all the building permits. As a result, no unauthorized building work can take place there. That is the power of collective action. If the electricity and water system is also given over to the neighborhood committees, it will significantly reduce kickbacks and thefts and also make everything so much more efficient. But the politicians and bureaucrats will not allow this. Can you guess why? Because it is bread and butter for them. They would become useless if the Bhagidari system were to work!'
Interestingly, the system of effective governance through least interference is advocated in the Tao Te Ching, the Bible of Taoism, which says: 'Ruling a large kingdom is indeed like cooking small fish' (the less one handles them the better).
The following paragraph, quoted in The Way and its Power by Arthur Waley, elucidates this further:
The adherence of all under heaven can only be won by letting alone.
How do I know that it is so?
The more prohibitions there are, the more ritual avoidance,
The poorer the people will be.
The more sharp weapons there are,
The more benighted will the whole land grow.
The more cunning craftsmen there are,
The more pernicious contrivances will be invented.
The more laws are promulgated,
The more thieves and bandits there will be.
Therefore, a sage has said:
So long as I 'do nothing' the people will of themselves be transformed
So long as I love quietude, the people will of themselves go straight.
So long as I act only by inactivity the people will of themselves become prosperous.
So long as I have no wants the people will of themselves return to the 'state of the Uncarved Block.'
The less governance model of the third century BC Taoists seems to be what 21st century India needs to move towards. According to Ashok Khosla, the other managing trustee of People First, the exploitative nature of contemporary Indian polity is alien to us. India has a healthy 4,000-year-old tradition of egalitarian democracy where governance did not mean some top boss lording it over you from Delhi but a series of 'concentric governments' that had the village at its center. Rejecting it and adopting a socialist-capitalist mishmash only gave us a slothful government where getting anything done for the common man without 'speed money' has become next to impossible.
Says Khosla: 'Overawed by 'modernity', we rejected our egalitarian ethos when our salvation lay in reconnecting with our heritage.'
The great spiritual master, Sri Aurobindo has interpreted egalitarianism to mean dharma. Says he: 'Both rights and duties are European ideas. Dharma is the Indian concept in which rights and duties regain their deep and eternal unity. Dharma is the basis of democracy.'
Perhaps it is the loss of this sense of dharma that has rendered values in public life redundant. Nothing is sacred anymore. We have polluted our land, air and sea, and we did not stop at that. The external pollution seems to be spreading inwards. We have lost respect for life, and somewhere, for ourselves too. In the noisy global marketplace, our conscience is up for grabs, stacked in neat rows somewhere between the aisles stocking genetically modified food and cloned Hollywood stars.
Priya Tendulkar believes corruption has only increased with economic privatization that has engendered a materialistic lifestyle: 'You have so many satellite channels bombarding millions of Indian households with pictures of goodies they cannot buy. Today, the reality is that there is mass unemployment and voluntary retirement schemes. The Americans are sending our professionals back. It is a situation eminently conducive to corruption. Moreover, the speed with which we are distancing ourselves from our culture and values makes us more vulnerable to these temptations.'
One finds individual attitudes becoming increasingly opportunistic. D.R. Karthikeyan, former director of the CBI and director-general of the National Human Rights Commission, who is now actively engaged in spreading awareness of spiritual values, says: 'Because of the erosion of religious and moral values, somehow corruption has become acceptable. Let's face it, there are no role models any more in public life. The fear of God is gone, and so is the fear of law. Few are caught and fewer convicted-of every 100 corruption related crimes, only about six are finally convicted. All this has made corruption a 'high-profit low-risk business''.
Even in these bleak times, there are some who have refused to take the easy way out. Priya Tendulkar did it by resisting pressure to pay 'speed money'. Recounting her experience, she says: 'Some years ago, I was producing a serial for Doordarshan, the Indian national television chanell. Regulations required separate approval for each episode. This was post-Rajni, so people knew me. I would go to the director at Mandi House (Doordarshan headquarters in Delhi, India) and collect my approvals. Some officials who actually signed the documents tried to delay my work. They were unhappy that they could not extract anything from me for their labor. So they tried every trick to make me shell out. I remained firm on my resolve not to bribe. Then they sent a middleman to me who volunteered to solve my problems. I complained to the director who instructed that the man not be entertained any more. This middleman then took to making threatening calls from public phones in my locality, hurling the choicest of abuses.
'So you see, it is possible. We can contribute our bit by not being cowed down by the mean ways of small men.' He sums up his life in one sentence: 'Today one does not have to be a revolutionary to create a storm. Being honest is enough.'
What makes these people virtually incorruptible? What gives them the conviction that we lack to swim against the tide? On being asked about what motivated him to set up Common Cause, H.D. Shourie says: 'It had to be done and I did it. It is as simple as that.'There are others like Aresh Shirali for whom a corrupt choice is never the option: 'I don't even consider the possibility. If ever confronted with a proposition of unethical gains and being an editor one does come across these something akin to a 'moral reflex' comes into play. I also know that sticking with my morals has some constraints, for example, that I may never be very rich. But that is fine by me. I believe in the MAD logic, which stands for a Mutually Assured Destiny that we are all a part of. Everyone is connected with everyone else. Being corrupt and self-serving can only be termed as a shortsighted and irrational act.'
Hear 'corruption' and we either become extremely moral, lambasting all those who indulge in it, or we are resigned to it being a part of life. Just this once, let's make an effort to actually care, and more than that, to explore the avenues of action available to us.
Transparency International is a global organization that seeks to empower civil society to participate in efforts to fight corruption. Here are some ways advocated (and implemented) by this nonprofit organization with which we can make a difference:
Many of us may feel inhibited discussing corruption issues. To overcome this, we can generate a debate within our community, whether at home or at work, regarding the corrupt practices we come in contact with. Ask yourself and your friends why things seem to be going wrong, and how they might be corrected. Have brainstorming sessions to come up with ideas as to how systems can be made more transparent and accountable. Write letters to newspapers, but try to suggest improvements, not just complain about the way things are at present. It is small steps like these that snowball into movements that change society.
You can also join organizations like Common Cause and the Indian chapter of Transparency International, which are committed to combating corruption.
Groups are campaigning for access to official information. Once legalized, get information of, for example, small-scale development projects at the village level, take it into the villages, and inform the people there. They are the ones who know who has really been paid, and how much. At village meetings, officials may be asked to explain why the money has not gone where it should have, and can be shamed into changing their behavior in future.
BE A WHISTLEBLOWER
The most effective thing that individuals can do is to complain when they see corrupt acts occurring. This can be difficult when your superiors are the ones who are misbehaving! Make sure there is no innocent explanation of the activities you see happening because what less senior people see is not necessarily the whole story. You don't want to confront an honest boss with a complaint that they are corrupt! Yet unless people have the confidence to raise their concerns with people they trust and are in a position to do something about it, nothing is ever going to get better.
Initiate discussion, within your own organization and with your friends about how existing complaint mechanisms are working (or not), and see whether there is room for any of you to take an initiative to improve them.
FORM AN 'INTEGRITY CIRCLE
If you are working in a department with a reputation for corruption, form an 'integrity circle' with like-minded colleagues. Each member makes a pact with all the others that he/she will not be involved in corrupt activities and will support each other if anyone has any problems over this refusal. Declare your office a 'Corruption-free zone'. You may also put up signs saying 'Please do not offer bribes as we do not accept them' or 'Bribes are unnecessary-we are paid by the state to serve you'. Encourage friends in other departments to do the same. Inject a seed of integrity into the administrative body and see how effective it is. Get your managers' support for your endeavor in writing.
When you see opportunities to remove unnecessary blockages in systems that serve no useful purpose but which create opportunities for bribes to be extorted from the public, write to ministers, MPs, MLAs, newspapers, drawing attention to the reforms needed.
BUILD NATIONAL INTEGRITY SYSTEMS
The National Chapters of Transparency International are building coalitions to strengthen integrity systems in their countries. The framework for strengthening integrity systems is set out in TI's National Integrity Source Book. This describes practical reforms that can be taken in each sector of society.
This project also includes creating an international framework against corruption that will ensure that the agendas of international organizations give high priority to curbing corruption. Intergovernmental agreements are being developed to fight corruption in an internationally coordinated manner. Both the TI Secretariat and TI National Chapters around the world actively monitor the implementation of such agreements by the signatory countries. This includes monitoring international conventions concluded within the framework of the Council of Europe, the European Union and the Organization of American States.
Most anti-corruption drives or remedial measures taken are geared towards taking stringent steps to punish those who are corrupt or to instill fear in them. As Indian Election Commissioner T.S. Krishnamoorthy says: 'I think the fear of detection is the most effective weapon we have against corruption. Singapore has ruthlessly enforced anti-corruption laws and that is what we too need to do. Doing this requires giving precedence to strength of character over everything else.'
However, unless the decision comes from within the depths of one's being, true transformation is impossible. This is borne out by Kohlberg's theory of moral development, according to which moral conduct is based on the choice that we make when faced with a dilemma. This theory classifies conduct based on avoidance of punishment and deference to power at the lowest rung of moral development, called the 'pre-conventional level'. The highest rung is called the 'universal and ethical principle orientation' where 'right is defined by the decision of conscience in accord with self-chosen ethical principles appealing to logical comprehensiveness, universality and consistency'. These principles are abstract and ethical and are not concrete moral rules like the Ten Commandments. Essentially, these are universal principles of justice, of the equality of human rights, and of respect for the dignity of human beings as individual persons.' This level of making choices may be achieved only after one does some serious and honest soul-searching. Let's do just that.
First of all, you and I need to get off our moral high horses and shake off the complacence that comes with 'dispassionate discussion' or, in other words, pointing fingers at others. Let's face it, that's what we have been doing for the past 3,500 odd words since this article began. We have examined society and people, but what about our own selves? For every finger that we have pointed at politicians or bureaucrats or the government (or the babu in a certain daftar [office> counting soiled fifty rupee notes), four fingers have pointed right back at us. It is time to turn the light, and the microscope, inwards.
We might begin by asking ourselves: Am I incorruptible? If an opportunity comes my way, would I desist? It is easy to be a person of steadfast integrity until a temptation presents itself. What if... will I... may be... only if nobody got to know... only if I needed the money for something urgent... only if it were a life-and-death matter... Carry on.
Some of the answers might surprise you for you may not really be who you think you are. I, for one, discovered that although I might be impervious to the lure of lucre, I would not be averse to bribing my way through for a driving license. And this, when I believe both the giver and taker of the bribe to be equally guilty of corruption. Another young person who claimed a absolutely impeccable moral standards admitted to giving up a 'tip' to a clerk at a land records office. Getting rid of the kind of hypocrisy that keeps us from judging ourselves of what we believe to be incorrect in others may perhaps change the mindsets that let corruption fester.