Corruption: What are we to do?

Columnist  | Mohan Guruswamy

Opinion, Op Ed

Animals steal food from each other just as humans extort from others.

Corruption is customary and we know what it is. (Representational image)

Wherever and 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? We all seem near experts at it and have all experienced it at in some form or the other 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. What Justice Potter Stewart of the US Supreme Court said in the context of obscenity — “I know it when I see it” — seems equally applicable to corruption. And given the plight of a majority of our people it is even more obscene than obscenity, which we of course know when we see it. Corruption is customary and we 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.

Take for instance the case of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He is one of the few Prime Ministers or for that matter politician we have had whose personal integrity seems above question. But as far as the Rajya Sabha is concerned, he is a tenant of Hiteswar Saikia and is a resident of Guwahati in Assam. We know that is just not true. Finance minister Arun Jaitley has made himself a Gujarat resident to become a member of the Upper House. Not very much before that he declared himself a resident of Amritsar and made a show of buying a house there. But Amarinder Singh cut short his residence there. The BJP’s L.K. Advani has also been quite peripatetic. At one time he declared he was a resident of Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, for the sake of a Rajya Sabha seat. But if you and I were as cavalier and flexible with facts as this in declaring our place of residence, say for the purpose of obtaining a passport, we could end up in prison.

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. The Hindustan Ambassador, that immortal symbol of a mindless and rapacious system, actually gave its manufacturer and employees as much joy as it gave sorrow to those who owned or drove those cars. All in the cause of a classless society by central planning. Did you notice how all car tyres or batteries cost about the same? Or how all similar sized air-conditioners 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”.

Much of the corruption we witness in everyday life is a result of the unnecessary exertions of lawmakers and the judiciary. In the past few months, I have had the opportunity every morning to contemplate a vacant plot of land in the neighbourhood I live 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 shortcut. The sign was ignored and my dog Sharmaji had 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 Sharmaji just slipped under the wire and was 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 ignoring them. The Supreme Court’s order that there should be no bars within 500 metres from a highway is now being circumvented by laying a maze to extend the distance from the bar to the highway. 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? So 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 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 nothing but systems based on laws. For laws to work it must be clear that if caught, trial will be swift and if found guilty 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? And how do people generally become judges? Let us take the example of Shamit Mukherjee, a former judge of the Delhi high court, who was caught in the act of arranging for a convenient place for justice to end. There are so many like him who adorn our courts.

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 exposes.

But the problem is that many of those who still call the shots in our media business 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 gripped by insurgencies.