Just had a long discussion with MinCat on corruption and doing our bit.

This is provoked by people’s penchant for doing their bit by ‘liking’ or signing some petition a page on Facebook, the latest one being Anna Hazare’s fast-unto-death.* MinCat’s point is that people should pay their taxes honestly, not bribe, vote etc. instead of talking about corruption at large.

This used to be my view too. Generally, I do feel that people should walk the talk before pointing fingers. However, I have come to believe that the system in India is too big for individuals or a pocketful of honest individuals to take on. I believe that the system places people in impossible moral positions.

Take my friend, M. One now needs clearance from the local police station before a passport is issued. This was a while ago so I don’t remember the details of the procedure but I remember the details of her encounter with the police station clearly. A policeman came to her door to ascertain that she was really herself, a resident of where she said she was. She was alone at home but he pushed the door open and invited himself in. It’s a sad thing in India that women are afraid of policemen, but who can blame us? Especially if one is in one’s nightclothes alone at home and the cop is openly leering. He asked for a bribe. M refused. He got nasty and said her application wouldn’t be cleared. She still refused.

In fact, full of righteous anger, she went down to the police station and complained. All the cops there had a good laugh. She was told to pay up or forget her passport. She didn’t. Her passport was stalled indefinitely. Finally, she had to appeal to someone who knew the commissioner, who then told the police station to do the needful. So she didn’t pay a bribe but she avoided it only due to influence.

Take my relative A. He didn’t include a TDS certificate in his income tax filing. But the tax was paid. Only the certificate was missing. The bank forgot to issue it. His accountant forgot to look out for it. He was formerly an NRI and switching to regular tax schedule for the first time. He was told he would have to pay a fine. He was shocked at the amount but ready to pay it. Then he was told he better pay a bribe instead. Or they would never close his case. They would keep finding fault with something or another and would always be watching him.

Take Sonia Faleiro and her experience of getting a certificate for her dog when she wanted to take him out of the country.

What about these boys, arrested through no fault of their own and forced to sign some random confession?

Take what I witnessed after my friend K died in a car accident. The guy who was driving was obviously drunk. His parents arrived at the hospital. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the cops negotiating with his parents. Before they sized up the parents, they refused to say a word to any of us on what was going on. They realised the parents were rich and their manner was obsequious. I realised the parents were asking for the results of the breathlyser test and the cops were trying to gauge how much they would pay.

But the fact that that guy got out of the situation unscathed, without a day spent in jail is beside the point. At the morgue, the family of my friend were asked to pay a bribe to avoid an autopsy. If they didn’t, they risked her body being held indefinitely and worse, being returned mangled.

So what are the parents to do? Of course, they could take the high ground and refuse and say let her be returned to us decaying with her face and body mangled. But isn’t that a little too much to ask of parents who have been woken up in the dead of night to be told that their daughter has died, on her birthday no less?

What was M to do? Sit waiting for her passport clearance that would never come? Write to the newspapers? Believe me, they wouldn’t bother. I’ve worked for a paper. There are two many such cases for it to be news. Organise a morcha? The powers-that-be aren’t that bothered about morchas. They happen, crowd goes home, things go back to normal.

There are certain professions where you cannot function without paying a bribe. Certain businesses have to pay cops (and the mafia) just to operate. If you’re a builder, you can’t get a plan approved without a bribe even if you have done everything according to the letter of the law. So what to do? Stay out of the profession? Or stay in the profession and don’t pay a bribe but sit with your plan waiting forever.

See, if you’re caught by a traffic cop, you can pay the fine and maybe it’s come to a situation where they won’t harass you also to get back your license. In fact, that’s quite easy to do, so hey do it. If your only tryst with The System has been with traffic cops, count yourself lucky to have had the luxury of doing the right thing and getting away with it.

This country runs on a bribe system because it starts from the top not the bottom.

Don’t let them fool you into telling you it’s your fault. Sonia hit the nail on the head when she said:

This is the inherent and painful conundrum of living in the type of society we do. We are expected to take responsibility not just for our integrity, but for the integrity of others. We are expected to apologise and learn not just from our mistakes, but to force apologies and instill lessons into those who make mistakes. In the particular society we live in citizens are responsible for themselves and for the government, when in fact the government should be responsible for its actions, if not for ours too. When we fail to do this duty we feel as guilty as if we had asked for the bribe.

And maybe a bribe is just a fair price after all. The book Sacred Games enlightened me on the working of a police station. The local police station gets very little funding from the government. It pretty much runs on bribes. So what you pay your traffic cop as a bribe – part of it goes into his pocket (fair enough since his salary sucks and besides he’s paid a bribe to be posted at the station and needs to cover that), a part of it to his inspector, and a part towards the running of the station. The station could not run simply on the funds from the government, which are inadequate to non-existent. What you pay in a fine goes to some central/state government pool and barely any of it comes back to the local police station. So in a sense, by paying a bribe you are funding your local police station (see it as a donation) instead of lining the pockets of whoever it is that is filching funds from the central pool. It’s kind of like the police station is a private enterprise and we are paying a private fee for their service. Capitalism really, under the guise of a state service.

So yeah, ideally, the way it should work is we should stop paying bribes, then cops will force the powers-that-be to listen to their pleas and increase their salaries and the funding to the station. Except, I doubt it will work that way. Even if they increased the salaries and funding on paper, it would be siphoned off in practice leaving the situation on the ground much the same and the public/cops too exhausted for another round. Because in India, corruption starts at the top. Not at the bottom like we are made to believe.

Which brings me to taxes. I always believed one should pay one’s taxes. Until I started earning – I started with Rs 5,000, went on to Rs12,000 and then realised if I hit Rs15,000 I’d be taxed. Then I looked at the state of the roads, water supply, schools, anything around me and realised that my hard-earned money, scraped away from the pittance I was already earning, was not going to be used for what taxes are to be used for (because the evidence of that is all around us) but towards someone’s pocket. And what had been only a theoretical cliché before because real right before my eyes, and made me very angry.

Some say that the government needs our taxes to make the country run. Well, I say, the government has enough funds. So much so that there are funds sitting around without being used also just waiting for someone greedy to come and grab them. What our government really needs funds for is fuelling its own little private side kitty, which is really where our taxes are going.

India has a high taxation rate and very little to show for it. In fact, there are a large number of people even in India who do not get a single service from the government. Even in cities, the roads are in shambles, without light half the time and mostly dangerous, some people have to arrange for their own electricity and water supply privately, they arrange their own security and where they need the police they are bribing them (essentially a private fee), their kids go to private school and college, public hospitals are out of the question, they even arrange for private garbage collection. So where exactly are their taxes going?

By the way, I am not against taxation in principle. In Hong Kong, I called up the tax department and asked them to set me up with an account. I readily pay the government for providing excellent services, I would have been happy to pay for even mediocre services because receiving any service from the government is a novelty to me. Never mind that the city has one of the lowest taxation rates in the world and one of the highest population density per capita. Guess what? This year, the government is paying me – a hkd6000 tax rebate and hkd6000 cash handout. Yes, every citizen of HK is going to get 6000 in cash from their government because the government has a surplus. Well, we’re not asking the Indian government to pay us back. Just to do their job, before we pay them anymore.

For years, people have been paying the government and then waiting endlessly for services. Well, maybe people should demand that the government provide the service first – at least on a trial basis – and then they will pay for it, kind of like road toll. Because with the payment-in-advance system, nothing seems to ever happen.

We are constantly told that if you want the country to change, you shouldn’t pay a bribe, pay your taxes, vote etc. As if the onus was on us. Well hello, when I was in India, I did all that. Most people I know did all that also. Nothing changed.

Even if we all did our bit, I wonder if anything would change because the rot is from the top. That is where the big funds get filched, the land grabbed, the resources cornered and the lack peters down to the bottom who then ask for handouts. For years we’ve been trying to tackle corruption from the bottom. Well, it hasn’t worked, has it?

Maybe we should start at the top. I don’t mean topple the government or the old ‘why don’t you stand for election’? A toppled government will be replaced by the same government in different clothes and you and me can’t stand for election because the system would swallow us whole and spit us out. Even our Prime Minister couldn’t stand for election. If Manmohan Singh cannot stand for election, I’m sorry, please don’t ask me to.

So what’s the solution? I don’t know. I know that Hong Kong used to be one of the most corrupt places on earth and they cleaned it up. They did it by appointing an anti-corruption bureau of people outside the system – the uses of colonialism – and then going after and making those who take bribes pay. The onus was not on people not to give bribes – because, at least at the grassroot level, you couldn’t get the fire brigade to come without a bribe… it was on the government official not to take a bribe and if he did, he would pay a high price. As Mr. Kwok says in the article I linked:

The only way is to make them realize that there is a high risk of them being caught, which is the Mission of the ICAC Operations Department – to make corruption a high risk crime. To do that, you need a professional investigative force.

Also note this point:

The HK ICAC’s annual budget amounted to US$90M, about US$15 per capita. You may wish to multiply this figure with your own country’s population and work out the anti-corruption budget that needs to be given to the equivalent of ours! However, looking at our budget from another angle – it represents only 0.3% of our entire Government budget or 0.05% of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP). I think you will agree that such a small “premium” is a most worthwhile investment for a clean society.

I’m constantly told that city-states cannot be compared to population-of-one-billion nations. Well, Hong Kong has been generally cited and used as an example of how to fight corruption even in larger countries. One can look to larger countries and see how they applied the system.

Anna Hazare’s action seems to be way of forcing an Indian ICAC to be formed. Here are a couple of posts against and for.

I personally think that the only way the system will clean itself up will be if we by the grace of God get someone at the top, someone from within the system with the political will and personal clout to get it done because he or she wants to and because he or she has the power and influence to get it done. Like Singapore has its special family.

Till then, maybe we should stop telling everyone to stop paying bribes, pay taxes etc. and tell them to do the opposite. Go on strike from your government – every citizen should refuse to pay taxes and only pay bribes/fees for services rendered. That might work.

And before you all jump down my throat, I have always paid taxes, voted, never paid a bribe. I do it partly because I’m too chicken to do otherwise and partly because I need to square it with my own conscience. But I don’t have any illusions that my doing so is going to change the country.

I realise that my attitude is defeatest. And I applaud and salute those who have really fought corruption – at the cost of their own lives. Because that is what happens to people who tangle with the system. One might even say that only once one is harassed and threatened or killed can one know that is making a dent in the system. Paying a fine or not paying a fine is all very well but really, it is the state that has granted us that luxury (there was a time when one could not not pay a bribe to traffic cops in Mumbai because you would just be endlessly waiting for your licence if you tried to do it properly with a receipt; this seems to have chnaged). Maybe the feeling at the top is that oh, we can let the little bits go because the big pie is up for grabs. Just like the Chiense government lets people do the odd subversive thing now and then so they have the sense that freedom is coming.

o yeah, I’m as tired of this ‘pay your taxes/don’t bribe’ rhetoric as I am with the FB-candle vigil variety. Both according to me are equally unoriginal and pointless.

*I refuse to be part of FB Causes or ‘like’ such campaigns and I’m slowly wondering about the point of signing petitions as well, but I also see that the point of social networking campaigns is just awareness building.