x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

India opens corruption call centre

Callers leave 400 messages first day as the recent Commonwealth Games fiasco helped in the creation of the agency to address the problem.

NEW DELHI //When India opened its doors to global businesses looking for a cheap place to locate their call centres, it helped turn the nation into the world's fastest growing economy.

Now the country is turning to the call centre again - this time to tackle its dismal corruption record.

This week in an office block in New Delhi, 25 workers started taking calls from the public reporting the day-to-day incidents of bribery that have plagued the country since independence.

According to the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), India's anti-corruption agency that launched the centre on Monday, the helpline aims to "weed out corruption and to assist people report cases of bribery and red-tapism in government office".

"An aggrieved caller can call the helpline number and complain about the harassment or injustice being faced by him or her," read a statement from the agency.

The scale of India's graft problem was highlighted a day after the phone line opened when a list was published by the Berlin-based corruption monitor Transparency International ranking nations on levels of perceived corruption. India was placed 87 out of 180 countries - three places lower than last year - and behind its economic rival China.

The opening of the call centre was part of a weeklong campaign by CVC to create awareness about the eradication of corruption. The centre received more than 400 complaints from across the country on the first day.

Although the helpline is only open on weekdays, officials at CVC said the initial positive response to the service may encourage them to make it available around the clock.

A survey conducted by CVC earlier this year found 53 per cent of Indians using government services ended up paying bribes yet only 20 per cent actually made an official complaint.

The study also found the majority of bribe victims were worried about filing complaints against civil servants because of possible repercussions, which ranged from harassment to physical harm.

Officials at CVC said the information shared by complainants on the helpline will be kept confidential.

"The callers are required to provide specific details related to case. The caller's personal details are kept highly secret," the official said.

A Subramani, the director of 5thPillar, a Chennai based non-governmental organisation fighting corruption, welcomed the call centre but said its success depended on people coming forward.

"Definitely, this is a welcome step but we as a society have to sensitise people to come forward and approach the authorities to curb corruption, then only we can achieve the objective," he said.

Tuesday's Transparency International report blamed the rampant corruption that was alleged to have taken place in the preparations for the Delhi Commonwealth Games staged earlier this month as the main reason for India's slide down the rankings.

"In the last one year, we found the government has not been very ethical. We had the CWG [Commonwealth Games] scam and so many other cases of bureaucratic corruption this year. That's what got reflected in the report," said Anupama Jha, Transparency's executive director in India.

Ms Jha said India has continued to slide down the rankings over the years despite the growing economy. The increase in corruption is effecting the country's development and widening the gap between rich and poor, she said.

"Corruption flows from top to bottom, and political leadership has to exhibit its will to take the problem head-on," she said.

A survey by Transparency, India in 2008 found that one in three Indian families living below the official poverty line paid bribes for government services that were supposed to be free, such as healthcare, policing and education.

A significant amount of the bribe money is paid to bypass bureaucratic red-tape in the public sector.

Estimates put the annual cost of corruption to the Indian economy at up to 2.5 trillion rupees, CK Prahalad, a management expert from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan said in a report this year. Anti-corruption activists stress the need to reduce both the demand and supply side of corruption.

"The public sometimes want their work be done quickly or in case of any violation uses bribes as a tool to turn a situation in their favour," said Vinay Somani, an activist with Karamyog.org, an anti-corruption networking website, from Mumbai. "When action is not taken quickly and the delays in judicial process encourage corruption. People think corruption is legal," he said.

"When action is not taken quickly and the delays in judicial process encourage corruption. People think corruption is legal," he said.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae