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Corruption as consequence

January 19, 2004

The multi-lane highway that paves 'India Shining' took a powerful blow with the murder of Satyendra Dubey, but the aftermath has been uninspiring. The Prime Minister's Office, the highways authority, various Bihari politicians and others swiftly mustered independent defenses, when in fact they should have initiated independent investigations. It has now fallen to the Julio Ribeiros and other brave souls, backed by the infuriated alumni of our top engineering institutions, to pick up the pieces following the crime, and get legislative and administrative measures put in place to ensure this doesn't happen again. The push for legislation to protect whistle-blowers has found some new life, and Parliament might be forced to finally pass a law it has preferred to shelve thus far.

But what's your bet on this affair itself? Will the prime minster get to the bottom of this murder? Do you think the next highway -- or even this one, despite the attention now surrounding it -- will in fact be laid clean, without corruption, without assaults on dissenters and whistle-blowers? One certainly hopes so, but that reform will not be obtained without serious examination of a more fundamental question, namely, "why are the corrupt people corrupt?"

I've asked that question a lot, and many of the responses have been predictable. Some officials are simply greedy, and have no use for questions of social and economic justice. Others -- especially senior officials in government departments -- find that the reward for their work is miniscule in comparison to their peers in private companies, and therefore turn to corruption as a means of keeping abreast. Over time, corrupt practices have so entrenched themselves that an individual who wishes to fight this must take on the entire system, and the opportunity for reform is thus small. Upward flows of information from lower level officials can be ignored by higher-ups -- eg, the Dubey case -- who prefer their comfortable lethargy to active involvement that would require them to work much harder.

And so on. A full list of these failure will run to some length, and in response to each of the answers I receive, it's likely that a whole thesis can be launched. These character issues and system failures require substantial legal, administrative, and legislative changes. They also demand greater participation by civil society. They require more transparency of function, decentralization of authority, accountability for outcomes, etc. But while a whole lot of corruption can be tackled by such changes, I have increasingly come to believe that these will not completely eradicate depraved practices. Because, corruption is not merely the sum of these malignant matters.

Often, corruption is the inevitable consequence of unexamined ideas. Convinced that a particular view of governance, economic growth, or social justice is the correct one, it is possible to fall into den of venality, even when one begins without such an intention. I'll illustrate this with a different highway infrastructure project, one whose operations I'm far more familiar with than the NHAI's alleged misdeeds now doing the rounds, but which is also mired in similar questions of impropriety.

The Bangalore-Mysore Infrastructure Corridor was conceived as a multi-pronged thing by which entire townships would be built along an expressway connecting the two largest towns in Karnataka. The reference model for this effort was Columbia, Maryland, situated between the large metropolises of Washington, DC and Baltimore in the United States. If everything went well, its backers argued, we'd have great living environments, a smooth commute to jobs in the nearby big cities, and a dramatic increase in commercial links between these engines of economic growth. Except, there was one problem -- the land for this dream was owned by thousands of people by very little interest in these urban-centric gains, and hundreds of thousands of landless others who in turn depended on them for their livelihood.

Naturally, therefore, the question of compensation arose. In the best of instances this is a difficult problem; valuations of property, as well as the economic costs on landless dependents, are not easily made. Opponents appeared almost right away to question the project on various terms. Impact assessments were found to be incomplete, faulty, or not available to the public; the tolls proposed for the highway were thought to largely negate any economic advantage from them; the government's procedures for notification and acquisition of land were challenged. The promoters' and developers' competence for this kind of work, as well as the exact deal struck between them and the government, were all put under scrutiny.

There were other irregularities too. The Reserve Bank of India has clearly stipulated that such projects cannot be backed by Enron-type 'comfort letters' from the government, i e assurances that taxpayers would bear the financial risk of failure or default. But that was ignored; in fact the government went so far as to agree to any settlement decided by the creditor himself, in the event of default!

A few years of all this has brought us to the present -- former prime minister Deve Gowda has decided to raise red flags with the word 'scam' thrown in regularly, and some of the press people taking notice. The fact that his accusations were leveled against one of India's more respectable chief ministers, S M Krishna, is more fuel to the fire. In double quick time, various quotes from the two warring political sides were trotted out in the press. You would think from all this that improprieties in the project have been discovered recently. But not at all; BMIC has, from its very origins, been bitterly disputed by displaced citizens and public interest groups, and its various claims have been repeatedly discredited or disproved.

The body blow occurred a few weeks ago, when a court ruled that acquisitions of land for the townships were improper and therefore void. The state's notification to residents made no mention of the townships, even though the townships were clearly the intended development to take place on these properties. Instead, a different reason was offered in the notification, and that the court has ruled unacceptable. With these residential developments now ruled out, one can only hope that the state takes the opportunity to back out of the idea altogether, and turns instead to the far simpler task of widening the existing state highway between Bangalore and Mysore. Krishna's government has been making noises in this direction, and it appears BMIC is on hold, even if not entirely doomed.

How did all this come to pass? At one level, we can simply observe that the usual unaccountable practices that take place in government were present in BMIC too, and that each failure was another example of corruption to facilitate a clearly untenable enterprise. That accusation needs to be proven, whether by Deve Gowda's arguments or elsewhere. But a different observation can be made too -- that once it was deemed economically advantageous to connect the largest cities of the state in this manner, once it was declared that American-style suburbs are the natural next step for the city's high-wage executive class, the corridor simply became the tool by which these objectives would be achieved. BMIC was 'necessary' because everything it presumed was also 'necessary.'

This is the key malaise of our times. There is widespread public sentiment favouring increased accountability, proper resettlement and compensation for displaced persons, honest expenditure, and all the other 'process' matters. But pressure on those fronts alone cannot turn the tide of corruption. Alongside, we must demand and develop a transparent discourse on the major decisions, so that they do not become engines of the very depravity we are attempting to strike down. This should, for instance, form the crux of opposition to the plan to interlink the nation's rivers; we cannot be content to ask if the plan will be executed well, we must first be shown that its premises are valid.

Whether a development initiative reflects the President's dream or the prime minister's prestige is irrelevant. Ultimately, all development must meet the people's aspirations, and their dreams have far more validity than the alternatives politicians think up themselves. From this recognition, it must follow that the core economic ideas of our times -- liberalization, infrastructure development, dismantling of welfare provisions, fiscal management practices -- must first pass their own tests, before they become instruments that alter the lives of citizens.

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Ashwin Mahesh

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