Among three factors that undercut India's progress and development, corruption in public institutions emerges as the kingpin.
As the national flags are furled up after Independence Day until the next occasion for leaders to fill the air with patriotic speeches listing progress and achievements, a candid assessment of the state of the nation makes for grim reading. Kashmir is rocked by civilian unrest, with the gains of the inclusivity achieved by the last State elections practically nullified. The Maoist guerilla movement now spans the entire eastern flank of the country. Assam, Nagaland and Manipur face their own separatist fires. Complementing this violence and unrest at sickeningly regular intervals are fresh revelations of multi-crore-rupee scams resulting from the nexus among politicians, criminals and profit-hungry corporate entities. These are but reminders that as this country touts its cultural, religious and spiritual past and invites the world to visit “Incredible India,” it remains one of the most poverty-stricken, strife-ridden and corrupt nations in the developing world.
Is this development?
As a people, many Indians feel proud of the undeniable economic progress the country has achieved over the past decade and the attention it now gets on the global stage. This is largely because it offers multinational companies a market comprising an affluent middle-class, which, in number terms exceeds the entire populations of many, if not most, countries.
As India aspires to sup at the high-table of nations, it will make sense to assess if the new-found development conforms to the true meaning of the word. And, concurrently, it should reflect on and understand the significant connection among the three factors that threaten to thwart these aspirations: deep-rooted corruption in government, mass-violence and unrest in an increasing number of States, and alarming levels of poverty and hunger in marginalised but numerically significant segments of the population that seem to have completely missed the progress train of which the rest of the people are proud passengers.
While governments in India proclaim the significant rise in per capita gross domestic product (GDP) as evidence that poverty levels are decreasing, this indicator of economic well-being is quite inadequate as a measure of the level of actual economic deprivation in a population. Being poor also means having low levels of education, being disproportionately vulnerable to loss of health or curtailment of income, natural disasters and crime. It includes being genuinely voiceless and powerless, feeling discriminated against and mistreated by state institutions, and lacking status under and recourse to the law. Additional indicators are low daily caloric intake and levels of female literacy.
Within this multi-dimensional context for viewing poverty, its correlation with corruption in government institutions becomes more transparent. Corruption erodes and cripples the capacity of the government to provide the public services that would mitigate the poverty-inducing factors listed above. Tax evasion by offering bribes lowers governmental revenue, and further reduces its capability to offer infrastructure 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.
Deep-rooted corruption in the public institutions thus perpetuates poverty. It seriously impacts the poor in the socially marginalised 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 mass unrest and violence as witnessed in many parts of the country.
Corruption, poverty, violence
This connection between corruption and chronic poverty coupled with marginalisation and violent uprisings, is exemplified in the Maoist movement.
The fertile ground for support among the local people for the violence in Jharkhand, for instance, is in no small measure due to the two-year reign of a certain Chief Minister who allegedly looted the State of the equivalent of almost a billion dollars. 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 tribal people, who depend on the fast disappearing forest land for a livelihood.
The story is repeated, with minor variations, in some 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 multi-crore-rupee scams to see the lamentable consequences of corruption. There is a correlation between even low-level extortion and deep human tragedy. A newspaper ran the story of 14-year-old Aditya Dube of Allahabad, who, on his way to school at 6.30 a.m. was crushed to death by a speeding truck. A city ordinance forbids trucks from plying there after 6 a.m. because the road that connects to the highway at either end of the city also runs through the school district. But policemen routinely allow trucks to enter, and stop them to collect a bribe of Rs. 50 from each driver. It was business as usual that morning too — except that this one driver decided not to pay, and, in his haste to dodge the policemen, ran over the child.
In the same copy of the newspaper, on the page opposite to the one carrying that story, is a report of how several infants died within a short time after being administered a vaccine at the anganwadi of a village. Government health centres often stock medicines and vaccines supplied by fake drug dealers, which are ineffective at best, or, as perhaps in this case, deadly at worst.
Thus, in the triumvirate of ills that have undercut genuine progress and development of India, corruption in public institutions emerges as the kingpin. It exacerbates chronic poverty and increases the marginalisation 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 organise and mobilise these groups, inciting them to violence. Corruption in public institutions is India's own Osama. 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. We can continue to ignore it only at great national peril.
(Raj Gandhi is Professor of Physics at the Harish Chandra Research Institute in Allahabad. He is at firstname.lastname@example.org)