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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Perennial triumph of corruption in South Asia

As the struggle rages in Middle East and the news from South Asia also focus on political crises and challenges, one thing flourishes as ever: corruption. Despite the ongoing ‘crusade’ against corruption and the sensationalism around the movement, it is here to stay for long; none knows how long. 
Even as the attention of the whole world is drawn to the rapidly evolving events in the Middle East, news from other parts of the world have now been deprived of the attention they deserve ordinarily. Yet they are as important as ever and it is prudent to examine their significance even though the evolving shift of paradigm in Middle East is of utmost importance in understanding the contemporary geopolitics.

In South Asia, multiple crises have emerged over the past few years but some have grown to critical extent over the past few weeks to months. While Pakistan’s endless tussle between shaky civilian institutions and assertive military has now been complicated by the apparent entry of the judiciary as the third player, acuteness of the political crisis in Maldives has been well appreciated over the past few weeks.

When high level of corruption is there, the societies get stuck
like this vehicle has done in the mud. But it is far harder to pull
societies out of rampant corruption than to extract this vehicle
from the mud. (Photo Courtesy: Arjun Acharya)
At the same time, it is a common realization in Nepal that this small landlocked nation is approaching a crisis with potentially devastating consequences as the political parties have now used up all their political capital with no constitution set to be ready after squandering the whole four year-period after the elections for Constituent Assembly (CA) in 2008.

In India, there is no significant threat to the system and its stability and indeed polling is underway in many of the states and even the polls for Union parliament and next government are approaching but this powerhouse of South Asia is now reeling under stress after mammoth corruption scams were exposed recently and relatively slowing pace of growth has been confirmed.

Amid all these things that keep changing with time, there are some attributes that are shared by people across South Asia and even beyond; and those barely change with time. The perennial problems of penury and poverty are routinely overshadowed by the hysteric coverage of terrorism and power tussle in capital in Pakistan, obsession to India’s apparent high growth and giant leap to become next great world power in India and rise and fall of governments in Kathmandu in Nepal.

Here we will look into one of such common attributes shared by all of the South Asian societies: corruption; and how these societies have adapted to the high level of it.

The big and small news of the day

“Indians are the largest depositors in banks abroad with an estimated 500 billion US dollars (nearly Rs.24.5 lakh crore) of illegal money stashed by them in tax havens,”1 This statement by the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) Director of India made the headlines on Feb 13. That was a big news in the sense that staggering amount of wealth was mentioned. Yet it was a small news in the sense that the amount was only an estimate. Had there been any means to corroborate or verify the exact amount stashed that way, it would not be the ‘illegal’ or black money in the first place.

The more intriguing part of his statement was that the countries where most of that illegal money was stashed were ‘offshore tax havens’ labeled by Transparency International as the least corrupt in the world.

Yet both of these observations pale next to the other more somber observation: the probability of the Indian state ever recovering that money from those ‘corrupt’ people is next to zero. It never helps that, while 77% of Indians live with less than 0.5$a day,2 many of the aforementioned ‘tax havens’ have been in news for providing as much as more than $2 a day in subsidies per cow .

Yet this phenomenon of stashing the wealth that way in safe havens abroad is only one of the many manifestations of the epic scale of corruption taking place in developing countries. It is a fact that the wealth transferred away in that way represents only a small proportion of the total amount embezzled or misappropriated.

This is because in these societies, there is a very high level of tolerance to the concentration of huge amount of wealth and the accompanying power (political and otherwise) and the prestige at the hands of elites. Vast majority of the corrupt and wealthy people of these societies prefer to remain at home with all the wealth and often using part of wealth to buy power in some form. And when all the wealth stashed by people at the top by unfair or corrupt means is added, the amount becomes staggering and well, that is again in estimates and there is no means to calculate it exactly.

Now this leaves us with this question: How can utterly corrupt and obscenely wealthy people live side by side with impoverished and hungry people peacefully and in perfect harmony in a democracy? How is it possible that the corrupt people are never held accountable even though there are numerous institutions tasked with upholding accountability in the society? How can the law enforcement agencies and the judiciary be mere witnesses in the whole process?

The other dimension of corruption

To reveal some other crucial aspects of corrupt practices and the increasing tolerance of the society to these, we now move to Nepal. Politicians, especially those from the developing countries are known world over to be corrupt and inept. But there are other categories of corrupt people who are nearly shielded from the kind of scrutiny and criticism that the politicians are exposed to.

In this instance, we take the example of police force in Nepal. Why does one get employed in police force? Answers may be manifold but pragmatic answer in Nepal (of course with some honorable exceptions) is that that job is a kind of license to carry out profitable but illicit activities that would be otherwise punishable. From trans-border smuggling of goods to collusion with criminal gangs, police officers in Nepal have brought a lot of infamy to the institution.

But more appalling than all this is the recent revelation that the three successive police chiefs were complicit in a scam in which nearly $3.8 million was embezzled out of the total of $6 million allotted for the purchase of Armed Personnel Carriers (APCs) for the mission of Nepal Police in Sudan. That act was apparently one of many routine activities of the police bosses but they were unable to hide this one from the scrutiny of public and judiciary because the dummy APCs sent to Sudan after the brazen theft were dummies after all. Exposed to scrutiny of international community it took merely days for the truth to come out.

The fact that the police chiefs were so confident of getting away with this act as before and their readiness to expose their own men to danger with those dummies in Sudan amid the hostile rebel forces speaks a lot about the criminal extent to which corruption has hollowed the institution. This also shows that the corrupt practices have been institutionalized in other branches of state, at least as much as among the politicians.

How societies adapt to corruption

The bitter truth of developing societies is that even though there is no lack of innovative people gaining wealth through sheer brilliance and hard work, the present world order ensures that most of the individuals in this category eventually migrate to the developed countries, in search of decent opportunities if not of better living conditions. This inevitably results in the situation where most of the rich people have either misappropriated the state wealth or fleeced the people unjustifiably.

Either way, while the innovative and productive activities of the societies stagnate or decline in face of fierce global competition, the only way left to be wealthy and powerful is to one way or the other get indulged in the ‘unsavory’ means.

Rhetoric aside, if ‘most’ of the wealthy people have gained the wealth and thus power through unfair means, the practical question arises, how can an individual hope or expect to move up the prosperity ladder solely through fair means? It is common to find people who bitterly criticize the subtle forms of corruption like nepotism or some other forms of favoritism, yet it is nearly impossible to find those who would reject some high post offered by some relative ‘unfairly’ just because that would hurt their cause of promoting fairness and eliminating corruption.

As is being realized in India after increased attention to corrupt practices, individuals aspire to become rich from the teenage years or even before, seeing in the society that it is money that matters after all. First they realize that they have to study hard to get good ranks so that they can outsmart others in the competitive exams for prestigious courses.

Once they have finished the courses and are chosen to serve the country as civil servants, there is a race to win the ‘plum posts’ where bribe starts coming from day 1 of job. While less smart ones ‘languishing’ in unattractive positions and the ‘naively honest’ people remain with little wealth, people accepted as smart by the society keep amassing wealth through the unfair means.

Thus while a small proportion of population moves up the prosperity ladder very fast, the majority remain shackled by hunger and poverty as they have to pay the bucks made with hard work as bribes to those smart people who are already well off. Casting votes to politicians and paying bribes to officials thus become the only two ways in which the under-privileged can participate in democracy.

The way out

It has been repeatedly shown that punishing some of the politicians for corruption contributes very little if any in way of eliminating corruption from the society. But efficient and honest people at anti-graft bodies, law enforcement agencies and the judiciary can make a huge difference especially in tackling corruption in the short term. Aware citizens and attentive media can also contribute significantly to that end.

However, the fact that the persons reaching the top posts of the aforementioned agencies also come from the same society with deeply entrenched corrupt practices makes it next to impossible to have efficient and honest people at those jobs simultaneously and for long. Indeed, experiences from Nepal show that the more clever and corrupt the person in institutions like security forces, the more he is likely to reach the top job with help of corrupt politicians, even if that means breaching the established norms.

So this leaves us with hard choices in combating corruption in the long run. As the experience of Indian civil service shows, society and family should inculcate the values in young minds so that they remain incorruptible during their professional life. Role of schools and teachers and the curriculums can also be huge. In theory, one would be fighting to end corruption for ever by cropping the new generation to be incorruptible.

Hard reality is that doing all this would be practically impossible so long as the values attached to wealth and poverty are changed so that people’s attitude to corruption and honesty also changes. While poverty is uniformly objectionable and prosperity is uniformly desirable, the borderline separating the scrupulous and unscrupulous ways of gaining wealth should be made clearer than they are now.

While the traditional concepts of virtue and sin are gradually losing their appeal with increasing modernization and urbanization, corruption is set to flourish in one form or the other so long as the present values around wealth and prosperity remain. Administration of better social justice with appropriate attention of the state towards cushioning the poor people from hazards of high inequality may be only thing feasible in the present system.

Despite the sensational crusades of anti-corruption people as in India, corruption is here to stay as long as the incentives for earning money by whatever means remain too high and reward for honesty and integrity are too low.


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Why I write...

I do not know why I often tend to view people rather grimly: they usually are not as benevolent, well-intentioned and capable or strong as they appear to be. This assumption is founded on my own self-assessment, though I don’t have a clue as to whether it is justifiable to generalize an observation made in one individual. This being the fact, my views of writers as ‘capable’ people are not that encouraging: I tend to see them as people who intend to create really great and world-changing writings but most of the times end up producing parochial pieces. Also, given the fact that the society where we grow and learn is full of dishonesty, treachery, deceit and above else, mundanity, it is rather unrealistic to expect an entirely reinvigorating work of writing from every other person who scribbles words in paper.

On life's challenges

Somebody has said: “I was born intelligent but education ruined me”. I was born a mere child, as everyone is, and grew up as an ordinary teenager eventually landing up in youth and then adulthood. The extent to which formal education helped me to learn about the world may be debatable but it definitely did not ruin me. There were, however, things that nearly ruined me. There came moments when I contemplated some difficult choices. And there came and passed periods when I underwent through an apparently everlasting spell of agony. There came bends in life from which it was very tempting to move straight ahead instead of following the zigzag course.

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