Corruption is alive and well

Submitted by Pam Baker on Tue, 2005-12-13 11:51.

After alluding yesterday to one of the negative aspects of life here being corruption, the headline of this morning’s paper was “MPs on Sale for just Rs 10,000”. Over the last couple of months, investigative reporters from a television station had conducted a massive “sting”, the results of which they aired on TV last night. We don’t have a TV in our apartment, so we didn’t see the actual show, but the paper (Times of India) had quite thorough coverage. Posed as representatives of a group called the North Indian Small Manufacturers Association, the reporters went to various MPs (Members of Parliament, so comparable to our federal congress) and offered them money (10,000 to 50,000 rupees, or $220 to $1100) to bring up specific questions in Parliament. The Question Hour as it is called is a set time in the Parliamentary schedule in which MPs raise questions that must then be answered by the Minister named in the question. The MPs who took the money did not check whether the North Indian Small Manufacturers Assn was an actual group (it isn’t), and they didn’t quibble with questions that ranged from the trivial to special considerations for the welfare of small manufacturers (examples given were “Has the Ministry lifted the 1962 ban on the book For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway,” and “whether the government will permit the import of new technologies like Trackbacks, Pingbacks, Blogrolls, Splogs and Hitcounters”[Do these exist? I don’t know]).

It is illegal for MPs to take any money beyond their salary, but eleven of them said sure, no problem (it didn’t say if any refused). These MPs were spread across all of the major political parties (6 from the major opposition party the Hindu Nationalist party called the BJP; one from the Congress party, the one currently in majority power; three from BSP and one from RJP, smaller more regional parties). Three of the parties have moved to suspend their MPs, while the RJP has issued its MP a “show cause” notice that requires an answer in 3 days.

An interesting twist is that the Supreme Court had ruled in an earlier case brought against bribers, that the bribers could be prosecuted, but the Members of Parliament had immunity to prosecution if they did indeed bring up questions they were paid to bring up. Article 105(2) of the Constitution says that “no MP shall be liable to any proceedings in any court in respect of anything said or any vote given by him in Parliament.” On the other hand, if they took the money, but didn’t bring up the questions, they don’t have immunity and can be prosecuted. Yikes! The bribe-takings were both recorded and photographed by the reporters without the MPs knowledge, so I don’t know what the legal implications of that are. We will have to see how this story develops.

Two weeks ago, I was part of a panel who interviewed students applying for the PLUS Program, run by Fulbright in several countries, including India. This is an opportunity for college undergraduates who have completed three years here in India to go to the U.S. and do two years of undergraduate work all expenses paid, and receive a U.S. Bachelor’s degree. Forty finalists had been chosen out of 450 applicants from around the country, and my panel was interviewing 19 students interested in science and math. The PLUS program targets disadvantaged students, and the students had a variety of disadvantages. Some were from what are called the Backward Classes (formerly the low castes, but caste is outlawed by the Indian Constitution), some were orphans, some had been working since they were six years old, some had parents who had zero years of education, some were girls whose families had opposed sending girls to school so they had had to pay for their entire schooling themselves. All the interviewees had managed to overcome all of this to not only go to school, but to excel at school. Such a vibrant group! None of them were the least bit sorry for themselves; all were grateful for having made it as far as they have. Not one had ever even been to Delhi before, but all were eager to go to the U.S. because, they said, the U.S. has the best education system, and because education in the U.S. emphasized “doing, not just books”.

So if you are still reading, by now you are wondering what this has to do with corruption. The students had been asked to write several essays, one of which was to answer the question “What do you see as a major problem facing your generation in your nation today?” Almost half of the students had written that corruption was the major problem (others said non-sustainable environmental practices, the unequal treatment of women, etc). They had very insightful things to say about how the pervasiveness of corruption saps people’s energy and will. Some said that it was difficult for a nation to succeed if it condoned such immorality. And they knew too many people who considered themselves moral individuals but who did resort to bribery out of the frustration of knowing that that was the only way to get anything done. A good end justifies bad means? So sad to think that the amazing potential shown by these students could get subverted by the the corrupt milieu in which they will try to follow their dreams. On theother hand, they have already beaten the odds in so many ways, maybe these will be the kids that help change the status quo.

[As a side note, we interviewers had a set list of questions we had to ask, including two that were supposedly to test the student’s adaptability and flexibility. The questions couldn’t have been more elitist. One was what will you do if your American roommate talks on the phone all night and you can’t sleep, to which they all answered, they would try to get the person to stop, but if that didn’t work they would just ignore it because they were there to learn and get a degree and they weren’t going to let something as trivial as a roommate get in the way of their goal. The other question was what will you do if you don’t like American food, to which all said they eat anything. I’m sure that for many of them, given their backgrounds, having three meals a day all paid for would be a real novelty.]

Bill Gates was here last week and he and N.R. Narayana Murthy, the founder and Chairman of Infosys (the first Indian company to be publicly traded on the NASDAQ) were interviewed together about a variety of issues. The one that pertains here is that when asked will India’s economic growth continue, and will India beat out China, both said in various ways that India’s infrastructure needed a lot of work. (Gates was gentle, Murthy was not). Partly that’s a need for better transportation and better communication systems (though both thought these were coming along pretty well). Those are the “easy” things, things that can be built. The harder to achieve is the infrastructure related to transparent accounting and a culture of productivity and meritocracy they see as needed for unleashing entrepreneurship. Both echoed the PLUS students: the major problem that could hold India back is corruption (bribery and favoritism).

It is changing. I am reading a book called City of Djinns by William Dalrymple, about Delhi. His descriptions of trying to get a telephone in 1985 are a good illustration.

“The Telephone Nigam is India’s sole supplier of telecommunications to the outside world. Without the help of the Telephone Nigam one is stranded. This is something that every person who works for the organization knows, and around this certainty has been built a empire dedicated to bureaucratic obfuscation, the perpetration of difficulty, the collection of bribes and, perhaps more than anything else, the spinning of great glistening cocoons of red tape” He stood in line in nine separate offices getting different bits of paper and got his phone after two months.

Compare that to our experience in 2005. We went with AirTel, but there are numerous other choices. Yes, a lot of people were involved in the installation and they aren’t cross-trained (but as our friends here point out, that provides employment to more people), but it didn’t matter who we were or who we knew, we paid our money and we got our phone and internet in 3 days.

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