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India's poor pay billions in bribes

Millions of poor Indians have paid about US$220 million in bribes over three months, a study has revealed.

Poor people find themselves at the losing end of the corruption chain in India. Above, a view of a slum in Mumbai.
Poor people find themselves at the losing end of the corruption chain in India. Above, a view of a slum in Mumbai.

New Delhi // Millions of poor Indians earning only US$1 (Dh3.67) a day or less, have paid about $220 million in bribes over a three-month period for essential public utility services, a study has revealed. The survey was conducted between November and January by Transparency International India (TII), the local arm of the Berlin-based, non-governmental, anti-corruption watchdog group.

It found that 9.4 billion rupees (Dh798m) were paid as bribes by the country's poor for 11 types of services, including police, health care, revenue and education. About 300 million of India's population of more than one billion live below what the Indian government deems to be the poverty line - which is $1 a day. The survey confirmed that the police department was the most corrupt, with 20 per cent of the 22,728 people surveyed paying bribes. They paid to have cases registered or simply to avoid harassment by officers.

Petty officials involved in maintaining land records were in second place on the list of most corrupt. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which was launched by Manmohan Singh's government to alleviate poverty soon after it assumed office four years ago, was also plagued by corruption, the analysis said. The dispossessed had to bribe state contractors for jobs assured to them under the scheme as well as to ensure they were paid in full after a day's work.

Almost four million households living below the poverty line also had to bribe hospital staff to be admitted, allotted a bed, and if required, referred to diagnostic services, the survey found. The total amount of bribes paid to hospital staff by these victims over the past year was estimated at about 870m rupees. Nearly one million households were denied hospital services simply because they either refused to pay bribes or could not afford to do so.

And though primary and secondary education was the least corrupt area, it was found that poor households had paid 120m rupees in bribes to admit their children to school. "The level and extent of mis-governance is horrifying in legal and moral terms," Hamid Ansari, India's vice president, said while releasing the report on Saturday in New Delhi. Corruption, he said, was "pervasive and cancerous". "This kind of corruption that denies people their entitlement to basic and need-based services, many of which may be free by law, results in the poor finding themselves at the losing end of the corruption chain," said R H Tahiliani, the TII chairman and a retired admiral. It only increases disparity in income and deepens poverty, the former navy chief added.

In its annual ranking of perceived corruption in countries globally, TII ranked India 72nd out of 163. In previous survey conducted over 12 months in 2004 to 2005, TII revealed that Indians had paid 21.06bn rupees, or an amount equalling one-fifth of the country's defence budget, in bribes for essential public services. It found that police topped India's corruption chart collecting about 39bn rupees in bribes.

They were followed by the judiciary, land administration departments and government hospitals that charged patients, many of them poor, a levy for admittance and doctor consultations. The 2004 to 2005 survey that interviewed 14,405 respondents across 10 of India's 28 states and 150 cities also discovered that electricity department personnel accepted large bribes to "fiddle consumer metres". About 62 per cent of the respondents surveyed claimed to have paid a bribe, while one-third said corruption was rising fast compared with the previous years despite federal government claims of administrative and economic reforms.

Eastern Bihar state, one of India's poorest, emerged as the most corrupt, while southern Kerala state, with the country's highest literacy rate, was the most honest. New Delhi ranked 11th out of the 20 states surveyed. A wider "national bribe index", compiled in 2004 by the weekly magazine Outlook, found that money had to be paid for birth certificates, passports, ration cards, driving licences, electricity, water and telephone connections, for housing plans to be cleared, bank loans and for menial jobs.

wBribes even had to be paid at public crematoriums to ensure a plentiful supply of dry wood to cremate the dead in keeping with Hindu and Sikh custom. A federal home ministry report compiled by senior officials, including heads of India's internal and external security agencies and tabled in parliament several years ago, stated that corruption in India was "endemic". It said crime syndicates had corrupted India's state machinery at all levels, running a parallel government and the criminal justice system had broken down, unable to deal with widespread chaos.

Over the years there have been attempts to contain corruption. As a deterrent, the watchdog Central Vigilance Commission began posting on its website names of senior corrupt civil servants and police officials, who it believed should face criminal charges for bribery. It named 74 senior bureaucrats from the prestigious Indian Administrative Service and 20 from the Indian Police Service. The commission said it had advised the federal government to launch proceedings against this "rogues gallery" on its website that listed the names, rank and department of the offending officials. Token inquiries were ordered but no one was charged.

The exposure was adversely received by the civil service and police associations, which dismissed it as a publicity gimmick and the practice was abandoned. In another nationwide example of trying to control corruption among civil servants, Indian customs officials posted at airports had to declare the amount of cash they carried to work each day. This amount was entered into a register and later tallied with money all customs officials, irrespective of rank, left the airport with at the end of their shift.

This directive, however, was met with antagonism by customs officials and was abandoned. Earlier, customs officials had resisted the installation of closed-circuit television cameras set up to monitor payment of bribes at airports by covering them with chewing gum and their uniform caps. They also went on strike at Delhi's international airport for nearly two weeks after massive amounts of cash were recovered from some officials and legal proceedings were instituted against the suspected officers.

They returned to work only after charges were dropped against the officials who claimed the cash recovered was money for daily expenditure on tea and cigarettes. "The authorities make us feel like criminals by forcing us to declare what cash we are carrying," said a senior deputy commissioner posted at Delhi's international airport. The new order, he said, would change nothing as corrupt officials would simply arrange for payment outside airports.

@Email:rbedi@thenational.ae