The Blight of Corruption in India

In a few short weeks, India is to host the Commonwealth Games, a $2.5 billion sports extravaganza which the government hopes will showcase the country's rise in the league of nations over the last decade. This ascent, while not as dramatic as China's, is nonetheless considered highly impressive.

The glare of lights may be bright enough, perhaps, to blind the spectators to the squalor and hunger that lie just outside their arc. And the accompanying glitz and colorful cultural fiesta impressive enough to hopefully erase from memory the revelations of multi-million dollar scams involving politicians and officials responsible for awarding lucrative contracts to businesses in the run-up to the games. At the moment, that seems hardly likely, given the shambolic state of construction of the venue, a collapsing bridge and even the possibility that the games may have to be delayed.

Indeed, a candid assessment of the state of the nation just after its 64th Independence Day also reveals alarming levels of strife and violence. Kashmir is rocked by persistent civilian unrest. The militant Maoist guerrilla movement now spans the entire eastern flank of India. The states of Assam, Nagaland and Manipur are ablaze with their own separatist fires.

To an outside observer, India often presents a richly diverse but complex and contradictory canvas, with its ancient culture and spiritual heritage, its educated, young work force, its affluent middle-class consumer base, its many millions who continue to remain backward and exploited, and finally, its corrupt and byzantine bureaucracy.

As India aspires to sup at the high-table of nations, however, those who care about it must reflect on and understand the significant connection between the three factors that threaten to thwart these aspirations: deep-rooted corruption in both state and federal governments, mass violence and unrest in an increasing number of states, and alarming levels of poverty and hunger in large segments of the population that seem to have completely missed the progress train on which many Indians are proud passengers.

While state and federal governments proclaim the significant rise in their per-capita gross domestic product as evidence that poverty levels are decreasing, this indicator, as is well known, is quite inadequate as a measure of the level of actual economic deprivation in a population. Besides being saddled with low incomes, being poor means lacking access to education and primary health care, being disproportionately vulnerable to disease, curtailment of income, to natural disasters and to crime. It includes being genuinely voiceless and powerless, feeling discriminated against and mistreated by public institutions, and lacking status under and recourse to the law. Other indicators are inadequate daily caloric intake and low levels of female literacy.

Within this multi-dimensional context for viewing poverty, the correlation with corruption in India's government institutions becomes more transparent. Corruption erodes and cripples the capacity of the state to provide the public services which would mitigate the poverty-inducing factors listed above. Tax evasion by offering bribes lowers governmental revenue, and further reduces its capability to offer infrastructural support to the poor.

Corrupt governments at the state and central levels tend to focus spending of public money on high-tech capital goods and equipment purchases, since bribes and illicit gains are large in such transactions. Public spending on health, education and access to law and justice consequently becomes a lower priority, impacting the poor who need such services the most. Money from existing schemes is leaked and siphoned off all the way down the line until only a trickle reaches the intended beneficiaries.

The deep-rooted corruption in India's public institutions thus perpetuates poverty. It most seriously affects the poor in socially marginalized ethnic, religious and caste groups, alienating them further and strengthening their perception of being left out of the progress being made by the rest of the populace. It is this feeling of isolation and helplessness that triggers support for and participation in conflict. Discontent and exclusion thus act as catalysts for the mass unrest and violence witnessed in many parts of the country.

This triangular connection between corruption, chronic poverty coupled with marginalization and violent uprisings is exemplified in the Maoist movement.

The strong support among the local tribes for the violence in the state of Jharkhand, for instance, is in no small measure due to a former chief minister's two-year reign, during which he allegedly looted the state of almost US$1 billion. Unchecked and massive expansion of mining operations without regard to tribal or environmental concerns was allowed, setting in motion a process that in the next five years will have tragically displaced half a million of the state's poorest and most deprived tribals, who depend on the fast disappearing forest land for their livelihood.

This story is repeated, with minor variations, in the other eastern states. It is thus no coincidence that maps of India's richest mining territories (which have witnessed massive public corruption), chronically poor forest tribal populations and militant Maoist activity would all cover the same regions and look almost identical when superimposed on each other.

One need not always look at big-money scams to see the lamentable consequences of corruption in India. There is a correlation between even low-level extortion and deep human tragedy. As I write this, today's local paper has the story of 14-year-ld Aditya Dube of Allahabad, who, on his way to school at 6.30 am in the morning was crushed to death by a speeding truck. A city ordinance forbids trucks from plying after 6 am because the road that connects to the highway at either end of the city also runs through the school district.

Cops routinely allow trucks to enter the city and then wait on the streets to stop them and collect bribes of Rs 50 (a little over a dollar) from each driver. It was business as usual this morning too, except that this one driver decided not to pay, and, in his haste to dodge the cops, ran over a child.

At certain defining moments in its history, a nation must recognize who, or, more appropriately perhaps, what, embodies and constitutes its Osama bin Laden, the will-of-the-wisp Islamic renegade who for a decade has been giving the US fits. Unfortunately, as even recent events have shown, this task cannot always be left to its leaders. In the aftermath of 9/11, President George W Bush and Vice President Richard Cheney pointed to Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction as America's Osama. They led the nation into a war that not only sacrificed American lives and resources, but ravaged a country that used to be part of the Fertile Crescent, the cradle of human civilization, destroying its heritage and thousands of innocent lives.

The real Osama, in the meanwhile, lurked in the lax regulation that fed greed and unbridled debt-financed consumption at home. The consequent housing bubble, when it burst, caused the collapse of major banks and stock-markets all over the world, leading to massive job losses and to high rates of unemployment which continue to persist.

Corruption in public institutions is India's Osama. It exacerbates poverty, rendering it chronic, and increases the marginalization of the most vulnerable in society. The resulting feelings of discontent, deprivation, lack of choice and helplessness then prepare the ground for those who would organize and mobilize these groups, inciting them to violence.

It does not hide in the mountains, but is out in the open and permeates the very core of daily government functioning. Its reach is phenomenal, and its consequences tragic. The people of India can continue to ignore it only at great national peril.

Raj Gandhi is a Professor of Physics at the Harish Chandra Research Institute in Allahabad. He can be reached at nubarnu@gmail.com