Making a Hapless Citizen a Criminal – Giving Bribe in Bharat

Recently Parliament cleared the Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill, 2018, which has enhanced the punishment to the bribe giver. While it has other provisions, the ones that I will deal with here is the one relating to the bribe giver.

It is often a perception that bribes are paid to get permissions to do something that is not according to the rules, and hence illegal. While in the era of industrial licensing this was a rampant source of corruption for the decision makers, both bureaucrats and politicians, post-1991, this has been much reduced. However, the citizens still have to pay bribes to coerce the government machinery to do things that are due to them. These relate to:

  • Getting an approval, etc., without any delay, even when the applicant has fulfilled all conditions.
  • Getting to meet an official to explain issues relating to his/her case.
  • Ensuring that no frivolous issues are raised.

All such cases ensure that the citizen has to expend time and resources to get things done, and paying the bribe is viewed as a lower cost option. It is actually in the same category of extortion that a local gangster often indulges in. The gangster threatens to cause physical harm if he/she is not paid. Part of the extortion goes to the law and order machinery which does not help when a complaint has been made.

Giver of bribe is equally responsible

The argument that the giver is as responsible for an environment where bribery is a sort of rule has been made ever since the time of the first prime minister of an independent Bharat. At the time, the governor in Mumbai explained the fallacy of the argument. He gave an example of a businessman from Delhi making a trip to meet his clients and/or suppliers in different parts of the country. He has made his train reservations from the beginning in a legitimate way.

However, a couple of days before he is to return to Delhi he gets news about his father suddenly becoming seriously ill and is on his death-bed, and is asked to come back immediately. The governor said: “If the only way to get a ticket to travel back is by paying a bribe, does the businessman really have a choice? I, as a governor, have the facility to decide on my travel due to certain rules which enables me to get a ticket at a very short notice. If the businessman says that he will not be able to see his father for one last time because he will not bribe, will he not be considered to be a heartless son?

Given the nature of intellectual discourse in our society, the pronouncement of the first prime minister is repeated again and again, while the governor’s response is forgotten. A few years ago, Prof Kaushik Basu, who had a stint in Bharat as when he was the Chief Economic Advisor to the Government of Bharat, he extolled the virtue of a whistle blower. To this Prof Arvind Panagariya, prior to his assuming the post of the Vice Chairman, NITI Aayog, responded that it is easier said than done. His May 2011 article, is available here.

Prof Panagariya rightly pointed out that complaining against one member of a department will get the whole department go after the one who has complained with a hammer and tong. It will also make other government departments go after the complainer in ‘solidarity’ with the officer against whom the complain has been lodged.

Unequal relationship

In the nature of governance, there is a most unequal relationship between the citizen and the state. The colonial system of the administrator being a master and the citizen being a slave has been carried forward post the independence. Even though the administrator is officially classified as a public servant, he/she expects the citizen to who a slavish type of respect by the citizen. Even an unintended slight is held against the citizen.

In this unequal relationship, does the citizen have a choice NOT to give a bribe if the circumstances demand of him?

Some suggestions

While I have stated what the problem is, the reader will be correct to ask if there is a solution for the system that exists today where a bribe HAS to be given. To come out with a solution it needs to be understood that corruption takes place because the system provides opportunities to extract a bribe. Thus, it follows, that without changing the system corruption cannot be dealt with.

Some say that high election expenses is a source of corruption. Some say that the bribe receiver does not have a threat of adequate punishment and so is willing to accept the risk of being caught. Both these causes can be dismissed when we see what is happening in China, where there are no elections, and bribe receivers not only get jailed but are often executed. Yet, corruption is rampant.

Whenever there is excessive contact between the citizen and state, opportunities for corruption exists. The basic principle for reducing corruption is to reduce this contact. While in any society there is a need for laws so as not to have a state of even mild anarchy, excessive control (a sort of ma-baap Sarkar) gives power in the hands of those in government – both the executive and the legislative.

In the recent past, some opportunities for corruption has been reduced or eliminated. For example, when there was a phone monopoly, bribery to get a connection, and to ensure that it keeps working, was a norm. With the advent of mobile phones, and abundance of supply, the opportunities to extract bribes have reduced. Similarly, with the increased passenger train service, and computerisation of railway ticket system, there is no need to bribe to get a seat. The same applies to air travel.

Tragically, the ones involved in drafting the legislation are the very people who have the power to extract the bribe. That they pretend that they are doing a great service to the nation is reflection of the lack of concern for the people at large. It should also be remembered that the Panagariya article is seven years old, and many others have made similar points.

The slogan of the present government is Minimum Government, Maximum Governance. It needs to apply the essence of this slogan when making legislation.

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