Corruption is India’s favourite conversation topic. We love discussing it and bemoan it’s all-pervasiveness. Whenever two or more Indians meet, the conversation inevitably moves to corruption. Sometimes I wonder what we would say to each other if there were no corruption to talk about? We are all near experts at it and have all experienced it in one way or another and at all levels. Yet, with so much collective experience, it is an elusive topic to write about. Like our gods, it takes so many myriad forms. It defies a simple definition. But we all know what it is.
Economists prefer to bandy about a different term when referring to corruption. They call it “economic rent”. According to the International Monetary Fund, “it is the extra amount paid (over what would have been paid for the best alternative use) to somebody or for something useful whose supply is limited either by nature or through human ingenuity”. Quite clearly, this definition excludes the moral dimension. But then our problems get even more compounded when we realise that morality itself is very elastic and varies depending on time, place and context.
Economic rent takes other forms, which tax the common good much more. High import duties, for instance, meant to restrain imports, actually serve to increase prices and profits for domestic manufacturers. Did you notice how all car tyres or batteries cost about the same? Or how all similar-sized airconditioners and refrigerators cost about the same? Or, till recently, how all air tickets cost the same and an arm and a leg at the same time? Adam Smith explained it best by noting that: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public.”
Opinion polls show that there are some professions that are believed to be entirely corrupted. Politicians and policemen top this list. Much of the corruption we see in everyday life is a result of their unnecessary exertions. Some years back I had the opportunity every morning to contemplate a vacant plot of land in the Gurgaon neighbourhood I lived in. Roads bound the plot on all four sides and naturally people walking take a short cut across it. Some soul with a penchant for orderliness has taken upon him to put an end to this practice. First a sign came up demanding that people not do the most rational thing, which is taking a short cut. The sign was ignored, and my dog Charlie has been using the signpost to leave his signature. Then a small length of barbed wire pegged between two poles appeared astride the path at both ends. The people who use the path still find it convenient to go around the poles and take the not-so-short shortcut. Good old Charlie just slips under the wire and seems quite happy that he has two more poles to leave his daily markers on.
The nature of most of our lawmaking is just like this. They are irrational and people will respond rationally to them, by circumventing them if not completely ignoring them. Now the only way that plot can be prevented from being used as a short cut is to build on it. If the empty plot is just walled up, the walls will encourage another use, which will be odious to boot. Laws that conflict with common sense just do not work. Which brings me to another aspect. We have laws that prohibit urinating in public and on walls, private and public. Urinating is meant to be a private business. But where are people to urinate when you just don't have enough urinals? Therefore, a law against urinating in public makes sense only when you have enough public urinals.
Thoughtless laws corrode a state thoroughly. This is why states built around tight regulation and appeals to a higher human ideal always fail. Corruption is all-pervasive and a worldwide phenomenon. It comes built in with nature. Animals steal food from each other just as humans extort from others. But human beings live in organised societies and societies are simply systems based on laws. For laws to work, it must be clear that if caught, the trial will be swift, and if found guilty the retribution will be commensurate.
That's where we have serious problems. Who makes the law? Politicians. Who enforces the laws? The police. Both are believed to be overwhelmingly corrupt. And can we expect anything better from the courts? Corruption in the judiciary and the need to uproot it were intermittently discussed in the past few years. Judges themselves have provoked these discussions. Former Calcutta high court judge Soumitra Sen became the first judge in the country to be impeached by the Rajya Sabha for misappropriation of funds in 2011. P.D. Dinakaran, the former chief justice of the Sikkim high court, had to resign in July 2011 in the wake of graft allegations. The next year, former CJI and NHRC chief K.G. Balakrishnan faced allegations that his family members had amassed wealth disproportionate to their known sources of income.
In 2003, the CBI arrested Shamit Mukherjee, a former Delhi high court judge, for his alleged involvement in a land scam. In 2008 the Punjab and Haryana high court was rocked by a different type of controversy after a bag containing Rs 15 lakhs was delivered at the residence of Justice Nirmaljit Kaur on August 13, 2008. The money was allegedly meant for another judge, Nirmal Yadav. Justice Yadav, who had to quit later, is still facing trial. The judicial process seems to be working for her, as it works for most of the well connected by lingering endlessly.
A just and relatively honest society requires a system that inflicts swift and commensurate retribution on transgressors. It is apparent that we quite clearly do not have that and will not have in the foreseeable future. The only way we can get that for ourselves is a vigilant media that relentlessly probes, investigates and informs the public. The fellows who still call the shots in our media businesses are the ones who have turned a calling into a business, like the fellows who got themselves farmhouses in Mehrauli. That then leaves the people to fend for themselves. Which is what they are doing in many parts of the country that are increasingly being gripped by insurgencies.