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Corruption? What corruption?

INDIA | Tuesday, 14 June 2011 | Views [926]

India claims the title as the world’s largest democracy. But don’t be fooled; this is not democracy as we know it; it has not been fought for by British or American troops, it is not exported in coca cola bottles in exchange for oil barrels, it does not involve foreign strategists deciding internal policy outside national borders. This peculiar breed of democracy is one where the will of the people is expected to be expressed and – more radically– answered to by government.

One of the first things I learned before even arriving in India was about the right to information. More or less, this act gives citizens the right to ask any question they want of their authorities, and the authorities have to reply within 30 days, otherwise the person responsible for answering can face prosecution.

Any question.

Anything at all.

And they have to get an answer.

Imagine what would happen in the UK if we had that; if we could ask why free school meals for poor children have been cut, if we could ask why doctors and nurses are being made redundant, why transport, homelessness and education services all face the axe (while MPs rack up dubious expenses on bird houses and bath mats using public funds) and most importantly of all; if we could ask exactly when Boris Johnson is planning to get a haircut. British democracy as we know it would dissolve into anarchy. This is surely not what democracy was meant for? Perhaps India didn’t get the memo.

Another area of woeful misunderstanding is corruption.  India thinks it has a corruption problem.

Tss!; )

I am an expert on corruption. I have studied it, campaigned against it and had every request from “ah Madam, you are setting up an office you will need a cleaner, I will find you one” to “Please give us unhindered access to the assets our Minister would like to get his hands on before he loses his job in the next election”.  To the best of my knowledge I have never paid a bribe. Not even a little one. But this depends on your definition.  And here’s the issue:

Define ‘bribe’.

Some enterprising spark has set up a website called ‘http://www.ipaidabribe.com/ It’s a portal where citizens can describe all the bribes they have paid. Genius! Not for India the rusty ‘comments’ box gathering dust at the back of a Kenyan Ministry (where citizens submit their complaints against corruption into a bureaucratic black hole, at best never to be seen again, at worst, resulting in physical threats)  - no, India is taking its anti-corruption battle online.  Here are some examples of bribes that have been registered:

·         2000 rupees paid for registering a marriage certificate

·         500 rupees for obtaining a learners and drivers licence

·         2000 for timely processing of an educational certificate

·         1200 rupees for passport verification

·         5000 rupees and 2 bottles of rum for an electricity connection (my favourite)

Now, it’s funny because in the US or UK none of these would be considered a bribe; if a company was writing the cheque these would all be considered legitimate business expenses.  

Alright, so the two bottles of rum is pushing it, but what’s the difference between that and a corporate gift? How many bankers have enjoyed concert passes, ascot tickets, ski trips and freebies from printing shops seeking their business? How many companies have a yearly budget for ‘corporate entertainment’ for schmoozing clients over four star dinners and box seats at the national opera. Bribe? Or Business?

Under US law, payments to government officials for processing passports, marriage certificates and educational certificates are not bribes. Under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, a payment to a foreign official for carrying out routine government or public duties such as processing papers, issuing permits and other official actions, is called a ‘’facilitation payment’’.  So under American definitions, the first four ‘bribes’ I’ve listed would be called ‘’facilitation payments’’ and the last, a banker would just call this a gift. ‘Bribe’, then, in the ‘developed’ world  is just an ugly word for competitive advantage.

This was beautifully expressed many years ago at a meeting of Transparency International (TI). TI describes itself as “the global civil society organisation leading the fight against corruption”. A  member of the audience (unschooled in the small print of the foreign corrupt practices act) asked one of the major oil companies present, about their payment of several hundred million dollars in ‘facilitation payments’ to the Angolan government during the civil war.  A senior TI representative immediately stepped in with the statement ‘’facilitation payments are not bribes’’ and shut down any further questioning of his fellow old-boy  on the panel. The debate moved on hurriedly on.  Those of us in the audience sat in bewildered silence, blinking at each other in stunned confusion.

You see, this is where the world’s largest democracy gets it wrong. India doesn’t have a corruption problem – not according to the definitions of the capitalist “first world” countries. No, what India has is a definition problem.  What India calls a bribe, the rest of us call a legitimate tax deductible business expense. They aren’t bribes they are ‘facilitation payments’. And the developed world pays a lot of them.

So that’s the answer to corruption in India: change the law, call payments to government officials ‘’facilitation payments’ give Baba Ramdev a big Mac and we can all go home with the corruption problem solved. Abolish the right to information and you start to have a democracy and an economic policy that looks like any developed Western nation.

And that then, is how you take the world’s largest democracy, and march it straight to the leading ranks of the world’s most ‘developed’ nations. Easy. It’s all about how you spin it.

Tags: corruption, democracy, development, india

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