Saturday, February 19, 2011

Ruining the land

The Kinks, a highly underrated British rock band, came out with a song called "Money and Corruption" in 1973, whose chorus goes as follows:

"Money and Corruption
Are ruining the land
Crooked politicians
Betray the working man,
Pocketing the profits
And treating us like sheep,
And we're tired of hearing promises
That we know they'll never keep."

The bandleader and composer of this song, Ray Davies, had not to my knowledge ever been to India. So it's safe to assume this song was written in reference to his own country. But now the lyrics appear  to have been written specifically for India circa 2010-11.

For several months now, the middle-class in this country is in a tizzy about corruption and can't stop talking about it. With good reason apparently, for corruption is shameful, and it's obviously quite degrading to find one's entire country indulging in it. But after sitting through months of newspapers articles and coffee-table chat about the recent cases of corruption in India, I find myself more and more skeptical of the received wisdom, and would like to describe my skepticism here.

Richard Feynman once said: "You can know the name of [a] bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You'll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird." I  think it's the same with corruption. When you read different people's comments about it, you learn little about corruption but a lot about the people.

What I've been hearing from various friends, relatives and colleagues, and what I'm reading in  the newspapers, purports to show we are all disgusted, and outraged, and shocked. But when I listen carefully to the words of the people in question (mostly Upper Middle Class) I find, behind the outrage, clear evidence of a guilty conscience. Virtually everyone in this class is a direct beneficiary of corruption in the form of black money (even though a Malabar Hill lady once assured me it was the paan-wallas who had all the black money!). Now this is basically tax money stolen from the government of India -- and the common excuse that "politicians would steal that money anyway" really amounts to a confession. The total amount of black money is estimated at up to  50 percent of GDP, which -- I assume -- makes the 2G spectrum scam look like a picnic in the woods.

The same class is also guilty of small and large actions that they undertake regularly and consciously to maintain their privileged position  in society -- namely, bribing police and other officials. The excuse is that such corruption is necessary "to get things done". Since I have a fine-tuned antenna that warns me when I'm listening to humbug, I generally ask the following series of questions when a concrete incident comes up: "Were you actually asked for a bribe?", "If yes, did you try telling the official you don't pay bribes?", and "Was the bribe for something that the official was legally obliged to do anyway or for something illegal that you wanted the official to do especially for you?". The variety of responses is fascinating, but most often the respondent turns hostile and changes the subject to "That's how things are done around here" and "you don't know about the real world".

The two characteristics I get from  this are: (i) distancing: "Corruption is a fact of life, I don't actively participate in it", (ii) helplessness: "I can't do anything but comply with corrupt people, see how vulnerable and disempowered I am/we are". This is fascinating because we are not talking about tribals in Bastar but owners of companies in Bombay, or journalists at NDTV, or -- dare I say it -- scientists at TIFR. "Distanced and helpless", rather than "connected and privileged"? Sure!

Each one has apparently excellent reasons for putting  up these excuses, and in the end each one ends up blaming  the one class of people we all rarely meet: politicians. Now due to the sheer weight of numbers, politicians in India are mostly elected by the poor. So the logical conclusion of this tirade against corruption appears to be that people in Malabar Hill are ultimately threatened and exploited by villagers and tribals (and paan-wallas). No one is foolish enough to say this, except the lady I referred to above. This Upper Middle Class world-view is so patently silly that it's only conveyed by winks and nudges.

Readers of this blog will point out that I appear to have missed the central issue. Not everyone is UMC, and surely common people (truly middle class, or working class, and truly not connected) do suffer because our politicians are in fact corrupt? Of course they do, and of course they are. But take a look at the standard newspapers and tell me how much space they devote to actual problems faced by (i) common people e.g. a labourer who wants to register a police complaint or get a document, (ii) government officials e.g. a young man or woman who would like to enrol in the police force but must pay a bribe for this and therefore is committed to travel down the slippery slope of corruption at the very outset.

Such stories and others like these might at least get us started on a serious discussion, involving questioning of the myriad methods that the powerful in every society use to maintain their power. Instead of the chest-thumping stuff that conveniently distances the speaker so that corruption is always someone else's fault.


anagarh said...

Dear Sir
I find this blog post as a very honest analysis. It is always tough-very tough-to risk one's comfort and follow the set procedure to accomplish the task. A personal anecdote: I was asked by a clerk in the health department to pay rs 100/- for giving me the letter for medical examination needed by DRDO for new recruits, I denied and took 6 months to get it done which took only one week for others.Many other cases,as a student. Now as a faculty,I am slowly learning how to kill oneself.But I do agree that politicians are corrupt because we ask them to be corrupt and let them remain so.But is there any solution??? I think your blog post has unleashed something which I will share with you in my next comment.Till then,,,I agree honestly

Rahul Basu said...

Sunil: In your grand unified theory, if I pay Rs. 20 to say a traffic policeman, in some global sense, I am also complicit in the crores that Mr Raja has made in the spectrum deal. That does not seem quite fair, does it? In other words while we should avoid paying bribes, treating the giver and the receiver as equally culpable does not seem fair.

Anonymous said...

"Readers of this blog will point out that I appear to have missed the central issue." — Quite the contrary; you have articulated the issue really well. And your post reminded me of a related effort by Bangalore-based Janaagraha called I Paid A Bribe, as it also did of Milovan Djilas's New Class.

Neelima said...

A few points on your post.

1. Corruption on the scale that is flooding the newspapers right now is a somewhat different phenomenon from the chai-pani, baksheesh phenomena that you have identified.

2. The middle class takes the holier than thou attitude because it doesn't function at either end of the spectrum, except for going along with the lower end.

3. The upper end can only be fixed if some action is taken, on a finite time scale. Remember Sukhram?
That was also a telecom scam. What happened after it went off the newspapers? If nothing happened there, the current scam is no surprise.

Sunil Mukhi said...

@Rahul and @Neelima: Thanks for raising a key point. I decided to address it in a new blog posting.

WebMiner said...

"dare I say it -- scientists at TIFR" --- Great, now you have distanced yourself not only from corruption at large but even your own cadre ;-)

Sunil Mukhi said...

@WebMiner: "Scientists at TIFR" is a category that, for the last 25 years, has included myself. Since I haven't (yet) lost my job, it still includes me. Where is the distancing, except in your imagination??