“We need to be always alert... we can't even wear expensive clothes or go to a high class restaurant with family”
My first experience of corruption was way back in 1965 when myself and my friend, Vijay Saradhi, were going on a bicycle in Hyderabad — travelling “doubles” was an offence and that too without a lamp. Before the dynamo lamp was introduced a kerosene-based lamp had to be used. A traffic constable, hiding behind a shop without his official cap, ran towards us and caught us, threatening to seize the cycle unless we paid Rs.2 as penalty. We started crying since it was a hired cycle and both of us just had 25 paise to pay the rental which he took from us and warned us not to repeat the offence. This showed that law can be overcome by such compromises.
Then we also saw the leak of school final question papers. We just had to pay Rs.2 to get a copy. These things prevail to this day, and students produce false leave letters declaring sickness or even “kill” some distant grandma or other to cry off from the class!
Years rolled by and we returned to India after years of stay in the U.S. We started to reconnect with our childhood friends and our first meeting was with a buddy who was working in the State government pension office as a senior clerk. After the usual exchange of pleasantries, he expressed his unhappiness that he was not able to join the mainstream revenue departments such as the RTO or Commercial Tax or Registration, where he could have earned a lot than at the current job since it had very little scope to earn “kickback”.
I and Vijay have attended many ethics management courses and have also taken classes. We strongly believe that even visiting a temple with recommendation or even purchasing a ticket for preferential darshan is unethical. Paying bribe to a railway travelling ticket examiner for a confirmed berth also falls under the category.
Why does this happen? The basic reason is the total dilution of values in families; parents do not educate children in moral values and ethical practices. Their greed for becoming rich by hook or by crook sets a wrong example to their wards. The high prevalence of corruption cannot be attributed to government agencies, legal system and the failure of law alone. Corruption is in-built in every walk of life — corporate circles, religion, NGOs, education. Paying ‘extra' to get things done is an accepted norm in society.
Corruption has a broad spectrum consisting of major and micro activities — starting with not telling the truth, telling lies, hiding facts, manipulating facts and figures, indulging in fraud, being non-transparent, using forgetfulness as an alibi, giving free lunches, tips, gifts, sponsorship, compliments and donation, showing favour and offering bribe.
Another friend of ours in a lucrative revenue department opened up after a lot of cajoling. He said one needs to be talented, skilful and should have to think on behalf of three people while taking bribe. Once you take the ‘extra', you need to have “professional ethics” to deliver as per the commitment which needs team sharing and coordination. You need to maintain transparency and be honest in sharing the booty!
You need to know the customer, his paying ability and his urgency. Also, you should be thorough with the rules to educate him/her how they are violating the law and how they are being favoured, thereby justifying the pay-off.
We need to be always alert, we have competition, we can't afford to take vacation, we have to maintain a low profile in society, and we need to work carefully in transforming cash into assets and investments, our friend continued. We can't even wear expensive clothes or go to a high class restaurant with family. The tragedy is, we have a lot of money but we can't exhibit it or enjoy among our circle or society. We need to do it outside our city that too carefully. We always have competitors in our own office who are ready to do the same work for a lesser bribe. We always face the threat from the anti-corruption squad since it knows how much we make and we need to take care of them. Besides, it is never-ending demands from our families and they don't care about our stress or pressure. We need to maintain a false image that we are honest, particularly with children and neighbours.”
I and Vijay had full sympathy for our friend. He is like a diabetic owning a sweet shop.
He cursed the Internet and the closed circuit TV, mobile phone recording facility with video camera and, finally, the Right to Information Act. These provided a great threat to his thriving business.
Yet, there was an array of hope. Most of the employees of the anti-corruption squad were from his own department. He did have the right connections to escape but it was costly to handle them when caught red-handed. The greatest challenge, our friend lamented, is the parking of the ill-gotten cash and handling the Income Tax department. He also has the additional tension of investing in benami transactions and so is forced to wait till retirement to retrieve the assets. He cannot even share the happiness with anyone including his wife, who, he calls, is an independent broadcasting service in the family circles! He wanted to learn from us the prevalence of corruption in other countries and enquired about the facility to transfer money to Swiss accounts since his volume has increased and so is his aspiration level! Are there not any honest persons in your department, I asked him.
He promptly replied: We won't allow him to work here, we will transfer him to the records or stationery department and it is better if he cooperates with us. If he is really honest, he should take what is given and not talk about integrity in the office. It is a very hot seat and people are ready to pay for this seat.
Curiously, our friend is very concerned that corruption has reached even the school admission process, wherein you have to pay capitation fees or donations. Corporate houses, NGOs, hospitals and temples are not immune. Even electric crematoriums switch off power if you don't grease the palms. We did agree with our friend and told him of our experience — we wanted one ladoo extra in a famous temple. The counter clerk told us that he could not oblige since there was a CCTV.
Thus corruption has been ingrained in every societal activity at every stage and bribe has become an accepted norm of society. The blame is not just with the system alone. It has to be owned by all of us as we are all driven by our insatiable desire to achieve higher standards of lifestyle.
I and Vijay have had the opportunity to undergo various training programmes on ethics management. Though systems can do a lot to arrest corruption by modernising the processes, the loophole is always there wherever human intervention takes place. To take care of that, the legal process should come into play whereby strict punishment is given and illegal property is recovered. But as long as people are willing to pay bribes, there will be bribe takers. Exploitation and corruption are first cousins.
Many international organisations have their own ethics department imparting training and providing helpline to their employees to adopt ethical practices at all times. In a country like ours, where a majority of transaction takes place through cash, the challenge of ethics starts from the bus conductor. Notwithstanding exceptions, do they always return the correct balance amount (change in popular parlance)? How many times 50 paises are not returned as if it is an interest payment rightfully deducted? The moral is, when it is not yours it is not yours and you are paid to do the job and not to earn money through the job. Tips given to restaurant servers can also be classified as bribe. However, tips cannot be taken as an argument to bribe officials to get things done.
Turning society into an ethical community which adopts integrity right from the home is a great challenge. For that, ethics should be taught in schools and colleges.
The lessons include not telling lies, mustering the courage to tell the truth and maintain it; being watchful of misinformation and manipulation; awareness about corruption and the ways to fight it at the individual level; knowledge of government and corporate ethics and avoiding temptation thrown in the way to become corrupt.
Parents and teachers have a vital role in imparting values to children, especially against the canker of corruption. It is high time that everyone of us in the family tried to be blemishless so that our children follow in our footsteps. Let us take the first step by not giving donation for school admission. I and Vijay are ready to lose the friendship of our revenue department friend!
(The writer, trained in ethics management, is a corporate trainer. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org)