On the culture of bribery in India

This is post is mostly relevant to those who have experienced the way bribery works in India so the rest will probably have a hard time understanding what I am talking about.

Nobody defends bribery. I am here to tell you why bribery exists, it’s implications on the economy and how there are haves and have-nots even in “bribocracy”.

Why does bribery exist?

Think of bribery like inflation. Do you know why inflation exists? In its most basic form, it exists because governments pump more money into the economy. Thus, the value of each Rupee you hold gets diluted. However the real world effort to extract a gram of gold, a barrel of oil or even dig up a Kilometre of road does not change. Thus you need to dole out more of this diluted money to buy the same unit of effort.

Bribes are akin to this in many forms but the most basic of them is the fact that governments do not pay out public servants enough to get by with their life. There are exceptions to this which I will discuss a little later. My dad probably earn about 80K/month. After taxes it comes down to something like 65K/month. This is a man who does not have extreme expenses (education, offspring’s marriage etc;) anymore. The expenses generally are limited to groceries and the occasional piece of jewellery. He earns this much after a service of 30 years. Think about a junior level clerk. He won’t be able to afford many things mainly because he doesn’t even earn 30K/month. These are public servants hence their salaries are decided upon by a bunch of politicians and bureaucrats. This is the very bunch that kept denying that the prices of vegetables and fruits had gone up by 400%. It is not like they are ignorant of the price rise. It is just that it is easier to deny it and do nothing about it because finally this bunch either gain from the price rise in one form or another OR they are too weak to act against the price rise. When a person has to run a family he will resort any deeds that will help him out.

A policeman catching you for jumping the signal will talk about a fine of around 1000 INR. The next statement he makes is a “settlement”. If you pay 1000 INR he will get nothing from it. His salary stays the same. 1000 INR straight in the pockets of some babu, in all probability. If you settle with him, you get instant justice and you save 900 INR and he gain 100 INR. It’s a win-win situation – right? Wrong.

The problem with this equation is that it maintains status quo. The image of a policeman is already down in the dirt and it just gets reinforced every time you pay him the bribe. Besides it hides the fact that the cost of jumping a signal is 1000 INR not 100 INR. This is a micro economic equation that is a bubble in its own. If you drain the policeman of this source of income, they will have to act on the ridiculous pay and trust me they will. I am sympathetic to the cause of these individuals to the extent that their pay should be normalised. The 100 INR is the cost of surviving. Not the cost of executing his duties.

What are the implications of culture of bribery?

Take the earlier example of the 100 INR. The impact of this is people now know that they have to pay 100 INR only if they get caught. The cost of jumping the signal is thus only 100 INR. A policeman will not pursue his target because he does not really get much from it. In all probability he will not catch the runaway vehicle. He also risks injury in a chase like this. Heck the policeman must only wait around a little longer to catch the next college kid who jumps the signal. 100 INR in the pocket baby.

Now magnify the problem – the Common Wealth Games. There is a lot of news floating around about the scam. Can you, for a second, even think that this was bad decision making? Or is it a case of a few people making off with whatever they can? The problem with this is that it is a feedback loop of the highest sort. Honest people will be weeded out in favour of the ones that fit into the system. This would mean that only the most corrupt will succeed the roles and efficiency will not be respected. In the long run the concept of honesty, efficiency and capabilities will be of no consequence. Thus all that will be left if the sludge. This has national level implications because a corrupt society opens itself to external influences and thus the resulting instability. The British occupied India because of multiple weaknesses. Our current politicians have just changed the weakness. For a very long time no imperial power in the world had any interest in our country because we had nothing that they needed. Now that India is a rising power both militarily and economically we need to be careful about external influences.

However the problem with representative democracy is that decision-making is in the hands of a few elected representatives. If these reps are either weak or corrupt they will be easy to influence. The right price and they will be happy to sign an accord that essentially enslaves the country to a foreign power. I believe that there have already been a few instances where this has happened. Doesn’t it strike you strange that we as the consumers get dictated terms by the sellers? Be it the defence sector or the nuclear energy sector or the insurance sector or the health sector or even the farm sector. Every single place has middlemen and foreign interests trying to choke us of the things that we are taking for granted. Why? Corruption. Bribe the higher officials and get an agreement up and running. The earlier monarchies sold the country to the British for privy purses and the current politicians are doing the same for a wad of cash.

The haves and have-nots in “bribocracy”

Not everyone is created equal in bribocracy btw. You just have to contrast the policeman to the officials who get raided by the ACB (subsequently let go because they in turn bribe politicians who in turn influence the case). The policeman is essentially fighting for his survival and the minimal money to get his kids to the school. These corrupt officials get dragged out with crores and crores in cash, gold and real estate papers. Does this mean that the policeman on the streets will not try to gather as much money as possible if he were made the Assistant Commissioner? I don’t know but I wouldn’t be surprised if he just asks for bribes in higher amounts to send his kids to a school with A/C classes in an A/C car. However, for now he is still stuck slogging it out in the heat and grabbing hold of that runner. I am sure that there is an unwritten, invisible but extremely well-functioning pay commission out there that decides the “rates” that people have to pay as bribery.

In a strange way bribocracy is the truest form of free market. Everyone wants the job to get done. It’s just a matter of the price. Consumers and suppliers have equal powers since the suppliers need to sell the state to the buyers.

This brings me to conclusion.

I believe that bribery is an evil but we need to find a ruthless way of squashing it out of the system. Unfortunately we do not have any references for this in Mahabharata or Ramayana because neither Ravanasura nor Duryodhana would ask for bribes. The solution, in my opinion, probably lies in the fact that bribocracy is a free market and hence choking the consumers will choke the suppliers. How will we accomplish that? I don’t know, but I will keep thinking about it.

I do not think that the people who have to accept bribes as a means of living really like what they are doing. So it is important to first get them out of the loop but normalising their wages. Then we need to go after the hydra’s heads. Simply relying on laws against bribery will not help since even the enforcers are just waiting for the right price you know. I think that it is the culture that needs to enforce these values. Laws will get abused but culture is something that the parents, teachers and the society rubs into the young without expecting any monetary benefit. This, I believe in one sure way ahead.

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