What festers below

September 16, 2017

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THE National Accountability Bureau ran a campaign ‘Say no to corruption’, hanging banners, sending text messages with the slogan and setting up 42,000 character-building societies (in all seriousness). One can marvel at the naivety or balk at the silliness even if it points towards the simplistic understanding of earnest reformists.

Our story of corruption is as old as the country itself, starting from the manipulation and grabbing of evacuee property right after Partition. It persists despite dismissals of governments and prime ministers, the cleansing crusades of military regimes and many anti-corruption laws. The focus, however, remains on grand corruption, which provides the spectacle and focus for public anger and pivots the corruption narrative, whether the London apartments or Surrey palace, the DHA City racket or the NLC scam or even the mythical $200 billion in Swiss banks. But it is everyday corruption, the abuse of entrusted power by public officials against people trying to access basic goods and services, which corrodes the public’s trust.

Corruption thrives partly in the difference between legality and legitimacy. Legality is a question of action, of whether something is in violation of the law or not. Legitimacy is a question of support for an action, depending on whether it is in accord with traditions, or is reasonable or justifiable. Actions can be illegal yet legitimate because there is no agreement on the fundamentals. For instance, to see smuggling as wrong, one needs to first accept the state’s sovereignty and territoriality, its right to impose curbs on movement and its regulation of borders. Not many in Balochistan think it wrong to use smuggled Iranian fuel, more so since they have no other means of getting oil, while the law-enforcement apparatus benefits from bribes given every step of the way. For locals, it is just one more way the state harasses them over nothing.

Rules and procedures are not only a maze but also work as an extractive industry.

Or take Sindh’s systemic practice of political inductions in government jobs. People demand jobs from elected representatives not because they are qualified but because they voted for them or belong to their community. There is a political economy to loyalty in this kinship-based agrarian culture where merit stems not from schooling but from who stands by you, where livelihood is collective and welfare dependent on collaboration.

In urban areas, the demand for jobs is, meanwhile, also a proxy demand for right to food and housing. The problem of patronage that results in bloated, dysfunctional public-sector organisations, is for voters a deliverance and reason to re-elect. Condemning clientelism requires the (missing) consensus that detachment in governance is more important than personal bonds and that bureaucratic processes should be distant, neutral, equal and impersonal. The point here is not to bring moral relativism to corruption but to highlight that any countering drive needs to bridge the distance between illegality and illegitimacy.

The commonness of corruption also stems from the relationship between the formal and the informal and official and unofficial interactions. The state is a knowledge economy where know-how is monopolised or secretive, bewildering even parliamentarians at times. A woman outside Civic Centre in Karachi cursed innovatively: “May God bury them in forms; may their graves be filled with paper, not soil.”

Rules and procedures are not only a maze but also work as an extractive industry. It is because of this petty corruption that 82-year-old Mama Akash had to run around trying to prove he was alive. He couldn’t get his pension because some clerk had filed him as dead, and to be brought back to life, he needed to fill out a form and get a letter of non-death from the head of a government hospital, an affidavit signed by an oath commissioner, verification from the area councillor or TMA office, a letter from his bank stating he had been operating his account and then get all these attested by a first-class magistrate. Or he could rejoin the living by paying Rs7,000.

The choice between endless hours of wait, back and forth between officials, paying money every step of the way with no assurance of outcome, and between paying a lump sum bribe is a no-win ultimatum.

Corruption then is not an act per se, but a ‘how to’ manual for managing encounters with modern administration, whether of state or urban informality. In the city, the poor have no option but to deal with water mafias and land mafias simply to survive. While the middle class may urge reform, common people cope by sabotaging the system that will not work for them. Corruption then is not a form of resistance but for many the only means of negotiating with the state, even if it requires self-harm.

Accessing the state requires an intermediary, the middleman as an etiquette guide — who to meet, how much to give, when and how to give. (Anton Blok in his study of the emergence of the mafia in Sicily traces it to the rise of middlemen who negotiated between peasants and the state, becoming power brokers in the process.)

Those accused of corruption in lower tiers of public administration emphasise low pay, low skills and a culture of impunity (‘everyone does it’) but also what they see as corruption’s redistributive function against elite capture, and given the steady erosion of public-sector education, that all other forms of social and economic mobility are closed off for them.

To combat corruption, people need to believe it’s combatable. How do you signal that? The formula so far has been fumigating the political top and expecting the fumes to trickle down. A more institutional approach may show that in political roulette, both the player and the croupier spinning the wheel do change, but the wheel and its tilted circular track don’t. The stasis of the infrastructure is taken for granted. That’s the bureaucracy.

The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector.

nazishbrohi.nb@gmail.com

Twitter: @Nazish_Brohi

Published in Dawn, September 16th, 2017