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Corruption: understanding the nuances

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The biggest problem that Bharata Ganarajya (The Republic of India) according to many people is the never ending corruption. This is an evaluation of many educated and knowledgeable people, but one that I am inclined to disagree with. Corruption is an issue that many voters seem excessively concerned about, one that actively motivates their choices. I am not advocating that it not be considered as a pertinent issue at all, but I doubt if it deserves the importance it is being cast upon it. The importance of corruption as an electoral issue is inflated because of its emotive nature and the susceptibility of general public on the rhetoric surrounding corruption.

Firstly, lets gauge the issue of corruption in India. Everyone in the country has invariable bribed one public official or another during the course of their lifetime. Transparency International ranks us at 79 out of 176 countries in their corruption perception index. (I am a skeptic of such indexes, but let us accept them for the time being.) The total amount being exchanged in the country as black money would be hard to gauge. But the effects on the common man, the taxpayer and the economy are considerable. The estimate that renowned Economist and NITI-Aayog member Bibek Debroy arrived at was about ₹921 billion! (I shall refer to Sri Debroy’s brilliant book at a later point) Now that we know what the consequences, we must understand why we are prone to corruption. The lack of institutional mechanisms to regulate bureaucratic behaviour and the broken legal system are popular reasons that many point out as to why it proliferates. These are not reasons for corruption, these are rather reasons why corruption goes unpunished. The reason for aggravation of corruption in Bharatavarsha is the socialistic, welfare oriented state. The much celebrated Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA) is a hub for bureaucrats to make their life savings. From allocation of housing, regularization of illegal colonies, tendering, the issuing of driving licenses to even the Income tax department, corruption is omnipresent.

A popular saying in Malayalam goes “There is god in every pillar and even in rust”, an expression of the Advaita vedanta. In Bharata ganarajya today, the malaise of corruption has acquired its own status. I wonder whether Indra had to allocate a god for corruption in Swargaloka.

I digress. The point here is that corruption is everywhere because the state is everywhere. The bureaucracy in India exercises influence over almost every aspect of our life, and this gives them an easy avenue to earn some quick extra paisa. Why would anyone refuse such an offer?

Prof. Debroy uses this formula: Monopoly + Discretion — Accountability + Integrity + Transparency for corruption. In my opinion, it is an accurate representation of the problem that we face in India. The unelected public officers of the state are given a wide amount of discretionary power, which they utilize for their own benefit. With the state being bloated as it is, they have a huge amount of leeway. This leeway is being conferred upon by the state, which aims to regulate and making law on every possible sphere of human life.

Take one example one of the biggest avenues of corruption, state indirect tax checkpoints. It is estimated that truckers paid around ₹222 crore in 2005 as bribes. Why so? because of the then broken indirect system, which led to the compounding and cascading of taxes on the end product. With the introduction of the Goods and Service Tax, this problem has been virtually eliminated with all the taxes coming onto a single national platform. There are no longer any physical checkpoints between the state boundaries, thus eliminating the avenue for corruption. In a similar fashion, by the introduction of e-governance practices, the republic can eliminate the avenues for corruption to an extent. The expansion of Citizen Service Centers under the Digital India hold much promise in this regard.

Corruption is not the disease. It is rather a symptom of a disease that man developing states seem to be afflicted with, the virus of the overbearing state. The Republic is prone to make more and more interventions not only in the economy, but also in the realm of political and social life. The more they intervene, the more the state officers are given an opportunity to cheat their employer. A limited state is the solution to this quandry. Propping up more institutional mazes like Lokayukta will not solve the problem. An institutional mechanism should surely come into place to purge corruption, but ideally not the Jan Lokpal Bill.

In conclusion, it is in the best interest of progress and prosperity that the state be more limited in character. Limiting the malaise of corruption is only one of the many benefits that reforms to that end will give us.

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