x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

New tools to fight a scourge that is as old as India itself

Websites and public promises are fine, but India won't really get to grips with corruption until leaders agree that they must summon the political will to act.

To fight a problem as old as government, Indians are testing new tools, in social media and online. But taming India's corrosive, pervasive corruption will take more than websites.

Bribery and abuse of office were near the top of the agenda of last week's World Economic Forum meeting on India, in New Delhi. No wonder: every day, India's newspapers tell of new scandals, delays in investigating old ones, and examples of crony capitalism.

But while the billion-dollar cases get the big headlines, many Indians are more affected by "retail corruption" - the routine shakedown for a few rupees almost every time you want to get a permit or any such small service.

It would take a lot of those incidents to equal one ministerial-level scandal, but then Indians need a lot of permits. And this kind of corruption, Forum speakers agreed, grinds the spirit of citizens, destroying trust in government and unstitching the social fabric.

To fight back, urban microfinance pioneer Ramesh Ramanathan and his wife, through their Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, turned to the internet. In August 2010 they launched ipaidabribe.com, a website and SMS service by which anyone who can send a text or go online can report being asked for a bribe.

And people do, telling heartbreaking stories of abuse suffered by ordinary poor people. More than 20,000 petty bribes have been logged online since the site's launch, and the idea is gaining speed beyond India. There are parallel sites now in Pakistan, Kenya and Greece, with more coming.

"It's working," Mr Ramanathan says." Bureaucrats in these cities call us up and say 'we're embarrassed that we're on this list, what can we do?'"

But 20,000 small bribes reported - and not necessarily punished - are very few in a country of India's size. The news, and daily life, are still packed with abuses, as Mr Ramanathan admits.

Another initiative, which has had success elsewhere, is "e-government" - processing of applications and the like online, with an audit trail so that all can see which office or official is holding up a request.

Online sale of train tickets, the Forum was told, has wiped out a whole class of station touts who, by bribing ticket clerks, used to snap up all tickets and resell them at a premium.

Wiped out? Not quite. Online bookings are increasing, but India's auditor-general has reported that for some routes, ticketing websites "malfunction" each morning, just as tickets go on sale; when the sites revive, trains are sold out, though station touts will cheerfully sell you one - at a premium.

Some experts at the forum still hope that e-government will bring urgently needed transparency, efficiency and justice to India's notorious land-transaction system. But the train-ticket example demonstrates that no system can be more honest than the people who run it.

Social media and the internet are plainly not magic bullets against corruption. But nor is the private sector getting the job done.

Last week several Indian firms - Infosys, Wipro, Godrej Industries, Genpact and Bajaj Auto - joined prominent multinationals in a WEF-sponsored Partnering Against Corruption Initiative, pledging to end bribery along their supply chains.

"If businesses mitigate corrupt practices in business-to-business transactions, they can help create the right environment to clean up the problem at the business-to- government level as well," WEF official Piers Cumberlege told India's Economic Times.

The sentiment is better than the logic. Some businesses bribe ministers and bureaucrats because it pays to do so; they demand honesty from their suppliers for the same reason. In this context it is worth noting that some big companies holding or seeking government contracts are carefully putting daylight between themselves and anti-corruption campaigners such as Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal, who have a knack of embarrassing politicians.

Well, how do you extirpate corruption? Can it even be done? Economists believe it can. Mr Ramanathan cites Georgia, in the Caucasus, as an example of where and how.

In 2004, Georgia stood 133rd out of 158 countries ranked on corruption perception by the respected Transparency International; last year it had improved to 64th, still not clean but plainly improving. India, 90th in 2004, had slipped to 95th by last year.

To be sure, Georgia, with fewer than 5 million people, is easier to govern than India. But when the World Bank assessed Georgia's exemplary progress, it identified 20 factors, of which the first, and by far the most important, was "exercising strong political will".

Strikingly, Georgia's change came from the top down. A World Bank study last year said "the comprehensiveness, boldness, pace and sequencing of the reforms make Georgia's story unique".

The first step there was to get the public's attention: the government began its programme by abruptly firing 16,000 traffic policemen, a group notorious for shaking down motorists. The roads were hazardous until replacements could be trained, but the whole country got the message - and the public welcomed reform.

"A fish rots from the head," the Chinese - who have their own corruption problems - reputedly say. When people very near the top are stealing wholesale, you can't stop civil servants at all levels from stealing retail.

India's federal structure, coalition politics and entrenched bureaucracy - as well as geography - give corruption plenty of hiding places, and make it very difficult to assemble and wield the political will to clean up.

But until there is a consensus at the top, nothing will really change.