From womb to tomb, corruption has become a part of everyday life.
It’s so widespread that only few Indians ― rich or poor, illiterate or highly-educated ― have not experienced it first-hand.
All politicians promise to stem it but when in power, they invariably end up being stained by it.
An expectant mother has to grease the palm of officials in a government hospital for admission while it is routine for her to pay “speed money” to lowly municipal officials to secure a birth certificate for her newborn.
As for the tomb, well ... unless you bribe the guy in charge of the crematorium, you are not certain of getting dry wood or the right quantity that you have paid for to cremate the dead.
Between birth and death, at every stage of life, corruption stares you in the eye.
If you can afford expensive private hospitals, which have mushroomed in urban India in recent years, your child will get the best medical attention. (Even in these five-star hospitals, doctors will prescribe unnecessary tests and make you stay longer in expensive rooms because they get cuts on the side.)
But the majority of Indians go to government-run dispensaries where, unless you know someone influential, you have to pay small bribes to jump the long queue of patients to get proper treatment.
And when your child is old enough to be admitted to a kindergarten, either you have the right “connections” or you pay a hefty sum to have him admitted.
In fact, getting your child in the right school is an ordeal for parents who are expected to undergo a “personality test” of their own before their young one can be considered for admission.
As for college admission, unless your ward is brilliant, you ought to be prepared to pay a large sum in illegal “capitation fee”.
Finally, when your child is ready to join the workforce, either he competes in the all-India public service examination, always tough to crack given the huge numbers seeking to fill very few openings, or he seeks employment in the private sector.
Relatively, both merit and “connections” work in the initial entry into private sector firms.
However, being self-employed is fraught with so many obstacles that to cross each one, you have to pay bribes.
To hawk vegetables on a cart, you have to give a hafta (weekly bribe) to the neighbourhood police constable.
Shopkeepers have to keep various inspectors from the local and central authorities in good humour.
Those who ply yellow-top taxis and auto-rickshaws have to keep on the right side of the traffic police, lest they penalise them for violation of any of the numerous provisions under the motor vehicle act.
Try getting a driving licence or a passport without hiring a tout, you will be given such a “run around” till you regret for not having parted with a couple of hundred rupees in the first place.
Now, a senior functionary of the government has proposed that bribe-giving, as distinct from bribe-taking, be made legal in certain cases.
Kaushik Basu, a former professor of economics at the prestigious Cornell University and now chief economic adviser to the finance ministry, in a recent paper has sought to make a distinction between what he calls “harassment bribes” and “non-harassment bribes”.
In his paper titled “Why for a class of bribes, the act of giving a bribe should be treated as legal”, Basu argues that the “harassment bribes” should be made legal.
It is notable as the law stands today that both the bribe-giver and the bribe-taker are liable to be punished.
Basu contends that the payment of “harassment bribe” should enjoy “full immunity from any punitive action by the State, even if the act of bribery is still considered illegal ... entire punishment should be heaped on the bribe taker”.
Indeed, he suggests that the bribe-giver in harassment cases should be encouraged to report against the bribe-taker so action can be taken against the latter under the anti-bribery law.
At one level, Basu’s suggestion for immunity for the bribe-giver might appear amoral, nay, defeatist and insofar as it seeks to accept petty corruption in the system.
However, on purely pragmatic grounds, it is better to concentrate on cases of huge sums being given and taken in bribes rather than frittering away the energies of government on pursuing petty corruption.
Even without changing the anti-corruption law, the State can ignore petty corruption of its army of inspectors, while it can make an example of those selling official favours, be it precious radio waves (spectrum) or the right to exploit mines and minerals for a song in return for huge sums in bribes.
Unfortunately, experience shows that while corrupt politicians invariably go scot-free, a petty bus conductor or a lowly constable caught taking bribes is dragged to the court for a long drawn-out trial.
In sharp contrast, senior politicians rarely, if at all, pay for lining their pockets with illicit moolah. Indeed, politics is the only vocation where one can make millions without having any educational or professional qualifications.
By Coomi Kapoor
Coomi Kapoor is the resident editor at Indian Express and president of the Indian Women’s Press Corps. She is also a columnist for the Malaysian daily Star. ― Ed.