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A messy basement and a clean penthouse?

Updated July 18, 2011
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Over the past couple of months, many contentious issues have emerged during meetings between the representatives of civil society and the Union government. Surprisingly, the issue that has received the most coverage is the inclusion of the Prime Minister under the ambit of the Lokpal Bill. One wonders whether the erudite PM is, as usual, used as a hapless front-end man for a larger cause – the welfare of the most powerful people in the land. The government seems bent upon ensuring that not just the Prime Minister, but also the MPs and high-ranked judges are beyond the reach of the Lokpal.

While this stance certainly questions the government’s sincerity in weeding out corruption, I want to argue that bigger issues are at stake. If the exclusion of the Prime Minister can be used as a bargaining chip to include the entire rank and file of the bureaucracy, then the compromise will be well worth it. After all, the mango man (aam aadmi) in a democracy does not interface with the head of the state or high-ranking politicians.

The middle-class deals with transport authorities, passport officers, registrars of properties and, occasionally, the cops. Meanwhile, families below the poverty line (BPL) deal with officials from the Public Distribution Systems (to avail food products at subsidized rates), government hospitals (to access free healthcare), government schools (to access free education and a midday meal for their children) and Electricity Board officials (to avail free electricity, if they happen to live in a rural area). A good number of these interactions result in a bribe being paid by those who don’t have enough to enjoy one square meal a day. As per a 2008 report released by Transparency International India and the Centre for Media Studies, Indian BPL families paid 9000 million rupees as bribes in 2007! This figure has probably increased because Manmohan Singh’s ambitious National Rural Employment Guarantee Act has expanded further into the Indian countryside. It’s already well-known that government officials implementing the NREGA scheme fudge the muster rolls. These brazen babus give jobs to the poorest of the poor on paper and pocket their fictional earnings. Clearly, grassroots-level corruption is a growth industry in India. So it’s preposterous that the government wants the office of the Lokpal to concern itself only with officials of the rank of Joint Secretary or above.

At this juncture in the debate, let us bear in mind that corruption is manifested in startlingly different ways at the top and the grassroots. At the top, corruption is associated with an obscene amount of money, a recognizable face and front-page coverage. Top-level corruption is newsworthy, and the media plays its part in pushing the accused into the shuttle service that runs between the Parliament and Tihar Jail. Agreed, these powerful goons never fully pay their dues, but let us not forget that this systemic failure has been instrumental in nurturing the Lokpal movement. In other words, corruption at the top makes us indignant.

At the grassroots, however, corruption becomes more difficult to tackle. It is propagated by a million faceless minions in the government. The amount involved in each individual transaction is not newsworthy. And, above all, the public is in cahoots and therefore forgiving. I daresay that a majority of those rooting for the Lokpal movement have, at some point or another, paid a bribe. Maybe because they jumped a red light or wanted a Domicile Certificate to enrol in a professional course.

Interestingly, as per another survey conducted by Transparency International in 2008, businesspeople too prefer to grease palms in the lower rungs of government. This survey was deployed on businesspeople operating in foreign countries and included 22 of the world’s largest and most influential economies. It was found that businesses bribed the higher echelons appreciably more only in the US, Switzerland, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan. In countries such as Russia, Mexico, Italy, South Africa, South Korea, Australia, France and the UK, the businesses greased the lower rungs almost as much as the high-ranking politicians or political parties. In all other countries – India, China, Brazil, Spain, Singapore, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada and Belgium – the businesses preferred bribing the minions. This tells us that typical businesses are not interested in influencing policymaking. They just want to set up their infrastructure with minimum fuss. The minions facilitate this, causing loss to the exchequer in the process.

These minions have to be brought to book, just as much as the Kalmadis and Rajas. Fortunately, the time is apt. The Right to Information (RTI) Act now allows any citizen to file for and obtain information from any government servant. For the first time since the British unrolled its red tape in the subcontinent, the public can demand accountability from the babu. At the same time, the internet is enabling us to create dossiers on these minions (case in point being www.ipaidabribe.com). A strong, independent and ethical Lokpal can round the circle and hem the minions in. Isn’t that a delicious possibility?

It’s so delicious, in fact that the government doesn’t have to worry about the cost of maintaining a large workforce for the Lokpal. The black money unearthed and the increase in revenue due to honest practices should suffice to fund the entire institution. You must have noticed that this debate has a classic business management angle: should the solution be implemented bottom-up or top-down? Like in most cases, the answer is: both.

A messy basement cannot facilitate a clean penthouse.

Eshwar Sundaresan is a Bangalore-based writer, freelance journalist, ideator and entrepreneur. His works are Googlable.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.