Indian corruption hits all aspects of life

AP News
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Posted: Aug 24, 2011 10:08 AM
Indian corruption hits all aspects of life

When her husband died suddenly of a heart attack, Rukmani Devi and her oldest son went to the local government offices so the state pension checks _ her only source of income _ could be shifted to her name.

The clerk in the pension office knew Devi's husband, a retired food inspector living in the northern city of Lucknow. He listened compassionately as she told of her grief and her need for the money, which would total about $240 a month. He gave her some paperwork, and told her to come back.

But when she returned, everything had changed. She and her son, Ravi Sharma, were told to wait. So they sat on a wooden bench in the packed waiting room, where temperatures neared 100 degrees. When the clerk went to lunch, he told them to come back the next day. But the same thing happened again. And again. It went on for weeks.

Finally, another office worker suggested Ravi meet the clerk privately. So he took him to lunch, and politely asked about the delays.

"How can the file move?" the clerk demanded. "You have not put silver wheels underneath it."

The cost: 6,000 rupees, or about $130. Three days later, everything was done, and Devi was getting her check.

Today, Sharma says he had been confused by the clerk's initial friendliness, or he would have offered the bribe far earlier.

"I know this is how things are with many government officials," Sharma said, himself a paramedic in the health department who was supposed to get a raise in 2007 that never came through. He paid a bribe to receive his retroactive pay, but still hasn't received the raise because officials are now asking for an even bigger bribe, he said.

"Corruption is part of life now," he said. "The booty is shared from the clerk to the senior officer, so no one is complaining."

It's how things work in India.

People pay bribes to get their children's birth certificates, and bribes to get their parents' death certificates. They bribe police officers, tax inspectors and principals doling out positions in nursery schools. On higher levels, politicians bribe to gain political alliances and industrialists to get land or government licenses. A bribe to a small-town police officer might be just 20 rupees (45 cents). For powerful politicians, the money is often handed over in suitcases, and counted in millions of dollars.

But if such corruption has become an everyday part of Indian society, a series of scandals _ and the public reaction to them _ hint that society might have had enough.

Still, eliminating corruption in India is a complicated endeavor. It has become highly politicized, it is viewed differently among the various social classes and nearly everyone is complicit in petty bribery _ either on the giving or receiving end.

A string of high-profile corruption cases over the past year have nearly paralyzed the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In a country where 800 million or so live on less than $2 a day, the numbers are staggering: up to $4 billion lost during last year's Commonwealth Games; a cell phone licensing scandal that cost the government up to $36 billion in lost revenue.

Then came Anna Hazare, a retired army driver turned social activist who has turned public anger over corruption into a national phenomenon, demanding the creation of an anti-corruption watchdog.

When the government agreed to create the watchdog but stopped short of all his demands, Hazare _ who compares himself to the pacifist independence hero Mohandas K. Gandhi and says he is leading a new battle for freedom _ went on a hunger strike.

Now on the 9th day of his water-only fast, surrounded by his followers in a New Delhi park and under the constant watch of TV news cameras, the 74-year-old has vowed not to eat until his version of the watchdog is adopted. He also claims divine guidance.

"This is a new revolution," he told his followers a few days ago, adding that God had "placed me here in front of you."

Thousands of people, many waving the Indian flag and wearing white Gandhian caps emblazoned "I am Anna," have gathered at Hazare's protest park. Children in elegant party dresses, their cheeks painted with the three stripes of the national flag, walked hand-in-hand with their parents, near groups of boisterous, and intimidating, young men.

But while Hazare's campaign has been warmly welcomed by India's urban middle class and its riotous news channels, corruption is seldom a simple topic in India.

It's hard to find people who won't _ if pressed hard enough _ admit having been part of that corruption in some way, whether it's in evading taxes (less than 3 percent of India's 1.2 billion people are registered taxpayers) or in paying bribes to get out of a legitimate traffic ticket.

"Bribery has become a compulsion ... We have no choice but to pay to get every little thing from the government," said Madhurima Verma, a homemaker.

And if the TV news stations breathlessly insist Hazare's campaign has become a national crusade with "unprecedented crowds," the reality is muddier. Certainly Hazare has plenty of support, but his protest has peaked at tens of thousands of people during a long holiday weekend. While that's no small number, it is about the same size as a recent food inflation protest and far from revolutionary.

And it has drawn little strength from the poor and bottom caste dalits who bear the brunt of the corruption that lets local officials steal their subsidized food rations and demand bribes for allowing them to pedal bicycle rickshaws for pennies through India's cities.

In fact, some of them have bristled at the protests as an affront to the constitution and to its author, a dalit lawyer named B.R. Ambedkar, who is revered among the untouchable community as a hero even greater than Gandhi.

Self-righteousness among the middle class, some say, is running amok.

"We cannot help dreaming of the barricades. "They call to us, the comfortable middle class." the writer Mihir Sharma said recently in the Indian Express newspaper. Like other critics of Hazare's struggle, he derides the public fasts as political manipulation, and says the proposed watchdog would undermine elected politicians.

"What a pity" he wrote "that the moment we seem to think will spark a new, politicized middle class is this one, in the service of a useless, misguided bill, and coalescing around a man whose ideas are regressive and authoritarian."

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Associated Press writer Biswajeet Banerjee contributed to this story.