A recent news item emanating from the US broke the story as to how a US-based company paid $17 million as penalty to compound the offence of bribing ‘officials and one minister’ in India to get a contract for a project in 2010. Apparently, it requires the US judicial and corporate management systems to detect, investigate and punish an American bribe giver, who broke the law in India—the Indians are merrily unaware that corporate corruption is rampant in this country. Starting from the Bofors case, and moving on to more recent episodes, it is bizarre that corruption in India is discovered, handled and punished only abroad, by a foreign country.
There is no segment in India, which is free of the cancer of corruption. In nearly every land transaction, building approval, grant of any discretionary permit or approval, in every major liquor or excise project or purchase deal by a government authority, there is near-certainty of a shoddy exchange of unaccounted for money; we can proceed on this axiomatic basis. Nearly every large company, indeed even small corporate enterprise, needs to have a large cash transaction arm operating to ensure that the necessary approvals get cleared without much delay—every government department needs grease for the slightest movement.
Almost every MP or MLA election costs upwards of Rs 30 crore (practically all of it in black); with a one-in-four chance of winning, and with the need to have at least a 500 per cent return for such a risky venture within five years as well as the need to repay large loans and election debts, it can be surmised that each MLA/MP is an enterprise worth one thousand crores per term—this is the enormity of the foundation of the problem. Usually, the advances are made by one of the eight or 10 mafias operating in each district (land, sand, mining, forest, excise, building, etc.) to each contestant; whoever is the winner is bound for the next five years to ensure the donor mafia survives, thrives, and gets a bountiful bonus; every chief minister is at the beck and call of the legislator obliged to one mafia or the other. On the one hand, the CM and the ministers as sworn executive office-bearers pretend to instruct their officers to ensure no wrong doing takes place; in a Janus-faced mode, in general their real support is to the mafias concerned, to thwart the DM or SP or secretary who wants to take appropriate action. Recall that under the Rules of Business, every government order has to be signed by an official; hence the imperative need for the minister to have the ‘assistance’, ‘support’, ‘cooperation’, ‘collaboration’, even conspiratorial participation of his officials—this is the anatomy of the rot in the state administration. This is also the real reason why we still have 70 per cent+ abject poverty, worst levels of educational and public health standards in India after nearly 70 years of Independence—perhaps this may answer Narayana Murthy’s question as to why India has not produced a world-class innovation.
India ranks 85th (out of 150) in the international corruption index; this seems to be a fairly generous assessment. It cannot be a coincidence that nearly every developed country outranks the Indian performance by a huge margin in this regard. Countries, which lagged India in the 50s, now mostly have left us far behind in the development race. The question may be asked as to how China, which has developed at an enormous pace, ranks below India at 100. The answer is that while there is large-scale corruption in China, it is more in the form of a tax—for each decision, the level is prescribed. The decision is taken swiftly—on payment of the bribe, the execution is done with great rapidity, with no hindrance or questioning; compare this in the Indian context where for each project at least 20 authorities, who do not ‘talk’ to each other, have to be appeased and appropriate file notings ‘created’—clearly there are some virtues in a totalitarian state! Surely the ‘Make in India’ programme is bound to suffer severely. While some improvement in the central administration at the GoI is visible, it must be stated that there is no force operating to address the issue of corruption at the state government level, the truth is that nobody is fighting the battle; structures have been evolved in such a manner that it is not in the interest of any group to join the cause if anyone dares to expose corruption, the system is most likely to target him and tarnish his credibility.
India, nominally a democracy, is more a political oligarchy ruled by the political executive with minor supporting roles played by the judiciary, the business class, the bureaucracy, and of late the media. None of these is interested in seriously challenging the issue of corruption, most are happy with the status quo. It can be axiomatically stated that Indian progress to reach greatness as a country is bound to fail if the issue of corruption is not seriously addressed—the rulers do not see this as an issue that concerns them; this is the extent of the darkness ahead for the country.
Subramanian is a former Cabinet Secretary