Chocolate and Gold Coins

Thursday, September 01, 2005


That excellent blogger, Sunil Laxman, posed an interesting question on the post about corruption in a maternity hospital in Bangalore. He wanted to know what causes corruption and what can be done about it. Here is an excerpt from a recent article of his on this subject:

Now, let's take the example of a village with around 200 houses. 150 of them don't have electricity, though the village is officially "electrified". You investigate, and find out from the villagers that the only way to obtain an electricity connection would be to pay a fairly large bribe, say some 1500 rupees. This may not seem too exorbitant, but we're talking about very poor villagers, who spend about 40 rupees per month on kerosene for their lanterns. Many of them want electricity so that they can have a couple of light bulbs at home, their kids can stay back and study in the evenings, and perhaps they can afford a fan to use in the summer months. Seems very basic, but this small change means a lot to them. And they cannot afford to pay the bribe, and remain powerless (pardon the pun). The situation was thrown open to us, and we were asked for possible solutions.
Read the whole article.

It turns out that two very good articles have been written about corruption recently. The first one is by Richard Posner, and he gives a classical economist view of the causes of corruption:

Since public corruption seems on balance inefficient, the question arises why it is so common. The answer is that corruption flourishes where the economy is heavily regulated but the legal framework is weak. The more heavily regulated the economy, the more irksome restrictions there are that will create a demand for methods of avoiding compliance with them, and bribery of the enforcers of the restrictions is one such method. The weaker the legal framework, the more difficult it will be for the government to prevent bribery, a classic "victimless" crime because bribery is a voluntary transaction; and it requires a sophisticated legal machinery to detect and punish such crimes.
Read the whole article.

Then Atanu Dey wrote about the example of Singapore:

This is what I heard. A certain minister, very close to Lee Kuan Yew [Singapore's Leader], in charge of housing (or some such) was involved in some kick-backs. The word went around that the guy will surely get off easy since he was in the inside circle. Lee asked the minister to see him. The meeting was brief. Two days later the minister blew his brains out. The message was clear: zero tolerance.

In India we hear of some high-level bureaucrat or politician robbing the public purse blind with sickening regularity. But we have never heard of even one high-ranking corrupt public official or politician ever being punished for his misdeeds. We have a free press of sorts and people get to know about how the most corrupt get away with murder. The notion that it is OK to be corrupt is internalized and soon enough we justify our own petty corruption by referring it back to those high and mighty whose corruption is legendary and who are never punished. We grow cynical and the society suffers as a whole. Our culture erodes and standards of probity and justice fall until we are a nation of petty thieves ruled by mega-robbers.
Read the whole article.

So let me explore some causes of corruption. Keep in mind that all or some of these causes might be relevant:
1. Low pay/lots of power This is always a dangerous combination. Power tends to corrupt. The lack of adequate pay tempts. Posner writes about this.
2. Too many dumb rules Posner points out that corruption can in some cases work to the public interest – initially - as a way of circumventing too many arbitrary regulations. However, he points out that this can lead to perpetual dumb rules because now you have lots of people who benefit from ignoring them.
3. Ineffective legal system You need to punish people to change behavior. But if the legal system really isn’t up to the task of meting out adequate punishment, then the incentives are wrong. Again Posner mentions this.
4. Inadequate punishment Politics might prevent the dismissal of corrupt people when they are caught with their hand in the cookie jar. If it is easy to dismiss people, it is easy to enforce rules.
5. Education matters Ignorant people choose corrupt leaders. Educated people make better choices. Case in point: Bihar.
6. It starts at the top If the big cheese stinks, the little cheeses smell bad also. You need to put some high politicos in jail to convince the minor players that it is wrong to be corrupt. Atanu Dey writes about this.
7. Founding fathers matter If your country was founder by George Washington or Lee Yuan Kew, then you have a hope of living in an uncorrupt society. If your founding father was Robert Mugabe or Saddam Hussein, then you’re doomed. Indian is somewhere in between. Again, Atanu Dey writes about this.
8. Tradition matters Once practices become traditional, they are hard to reverse. Along these lines, Uma of Indianwriting has an excellent essay about dowry inspired wife suicide/murder.

Any other suggestions?


  • Hi Michael
    I kinda disagre with your "founding fathers" argument. I feel corruption might even be less in a dictatorial leadership than a democratic one. After all, isn't Singapore a dictatorial regime? Cause a genocidal leader could also be, by a freak of nature, someone who is finnicky about corruption. Ideally, you would like to have a democratically elected leader, who is dictatorial in matters of law enforcement.

    I think a reason you haven't mentioned is public apathy, where people just don't care about the bigger picture as long as they can get off a speeding ticket by paying 50 rupees.

    I also think that contrary to your theory of corruption starting from the top, it probably starts from the bottom up. Because leaders used to be regular people first, before they got elected to positions of power. And if they were used to paying bribes as regular citizens, then they would carry this practice forward, albeit in reverse, of accepting bribes when they become leaders.

    By Blogger gawker, at 8:53 AM  

  • Hi Gawker
    I agree that a dictator might, in fact, just as easily wipe out corruption as foster it. To some extent, the founding father hypothesis is a combination of the it starts at the top and tradition matters. Logically, it should matter less and less over time how good the founding father was. But India and Singapore and Zimbabwe are relatively young.

    Public apathy towards corruption might be a form of conditioning. It is like the tradition argument: corruption is here because it has always been here. It is hard to change a society, which is why it is important to nip new problems in the bud.

    I agree that corruption starts early. Children see their parents participate in the "system" and learn. They may grow up to be corrupt leaders. This is again the tradition argument.

    But I still believe that it is important to change things first at the top. Or at least, putting the corrupt politico in prison is more important than going after the cop who takes 50 rupees.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 9:52 AM  

  • I feel there is only so much that can be achieved by concentrating on punishing corruption. Not that it should not be done. Of course corrupt officials should be punished. But the main problem is people giving bribes, not recieving them. If no one gave bribes, no one would expect to recieve them. People have to change their mindset about offering bribes as their first solution to getting something done. Its like the war against drugs in the US. Or the war against terrorism. So you catch some drug smugglers, kill some terrorists. Whats that going to achieve in the bigger picture? There will be more drug smugglers, more terrorists. You have to stop the problem at it's source, and that is, people's lax attitude towards giving bribes.

    I realize there are many things in India that cannot be achieved at all without paying bribes, and so, this might be difficult to bring about. But, it has to be done somehow. Maybe what we need to have is a simultaneous top down as well as a bottom up approach to eradicating corruption.

    By Blogger gawker, at 10:20 AM  

  • hi michael,

    thanks for linking to my post!

    about corruption, i agree with gawker - people should start by refusing to pay. i know it may not be easy, it can be very frustrating sometimes to try and get things done without paying - but that's what one has to do. in that sense, corruption is often (though not always) like the practice of dowry. most people will just try to show a hundred-rupee note if they are caught changing lanes irregularly, or speaking on the cellphone while driving, or not wearing their seat belt.

    and as for corruption in high places...!!

    well, i also think that used efficiently, the right to information act will bring a great deal of transparency.

    By Blogger uma, at 11:22 AM  

  • Hi Michael,

    Thanks for the link to my post!

    This post excellently brings together a lot of diverse points.

    Richard Posner's post is excellent, and has a high relevance to an Indian context. The degree of regulation, shrouded by secrecy, makes it very difficult for the common man to understand what needs to be done. In that, the Right to Information bill alone isn't enough. Much has to be done to clean up and simplify all processes (from getting a license to registering land). The Bangalore report card also says that.

    The "founding father" arguement is a good one. Except that Singapore was one of the rare few that got a good dictatorial leader (who would probably win elections hands down if he had one now). Almost the exception to the rule. However Yew rules over a state of 5 million people. So the number of efficient and dedicated people required to run it are few. Though (by probability) there will be the same percent of dedicated, uncorrupt people in India, given it's size, a larger number of rotten apples are likely to seep in to the system. Then what?

    And resisting bribery is easier to talk about than do. This was part of the problem I'd discussed in my article earlier. Most people just want to get on with their lives. Asking them to take a stand constantly is ideal, but doesn't happen. Still....permanent change will happen only when people refuse bribes, but for that, the legal system (at least in India) must change.

    Finally, this is the one case of a top-down approach (to fight corruption) that I agree with. If 2-3 senior officials or politicians are made an example out of, and punished, the common man who accepts bribes realizes that if even such a senior official roasts, he has no chance at all. This will bring down corruption levels.

    By Blogger Sunil, at 12:21 PM  

  • Hi Gawker, Uma, and Sunil

    Gawker: Yes, I see your point: it isn't enough to go after those who take bribes but also those who offer them. Indeed, many cases of corruption, like paying 50 rupees to get out of the traffic ticket, are really avoidable. Penalties for offering bribes coupled with some awareness of the issue might help.

    But I can see that many people, including most businessmen, might be stuck between a rock and a hard place on this issue. The want to be honest but if most people cheat, it can very hard. Still, I agree, everyone needs to do more.

    Uma: That is a fine essay on dowry related murder/suicide you wrote. Dowry definitely can be thought of as a tradition-bound form of corruption. I think more families should refuse to pay dowry. My feeling is that if there were more love-marriages in India, the whole dowry thing would collapse.

    Here's an idea: start a union. All women could join and insist on collective bargaining for dowry: set it at zero. That would be a union I could support.

    Sunil: You're welcome and thanks for your detailed comment.

    I agree that it is hard to compare a city state of 5 million to a nation of 1 billion. I made that point on Atanu's blog. But I agree that traditions started at the founding of the nation have a profound effect. Atanu's story of the minister who committed suicide when caught probably had an effect on Singapore.

    I agree that, like in the case where the woman giving birth had to bribe the nurse to see her child, it wouldn't be reasonable to expect her to make a principled stand. But many times that people offer bribes, it is petty. People shouldn't bribe officers to get out of speeding tickets.

    I believe very strongly that in any organization, it effectiveness is a reflection of the leadership. If want good government, it starts at the top. By the way, I would think Manmohan Singh is a principled individual. Maybe he can have some influence.

    Thanks everyone for some very intelligent comments.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 3:52 PM  

  • hi,
    linking your blog.

    By Blogger shrikanth, at 8:46 PM  

  • Hi Michael,

    Level of corruption in a country depends upon that country’s social history, geographical size, size of Population and resource scarcity.

    Success of Lee Yuan Kew to a great extend can attributed to those factors. I am certain that Lee Yuan Kew would not be able to produce the same result had it been in India. So I do not entirely agree with your founding father argument.

    “Educated people make better choices” – To a certain extend - if you are living in a perfect democracy. Otherwise as Arundhati said, “it's like being asked to choose a detergent. Whether you choose Tide or Ivory Snow, they are both owned by Procter & Gamble."

    After about 200 years of colonial rule no one can change India over night. It will take time effort and patience for a country as big and diverse as India to break out those negative impacts and come out fresh and sparkling.

    By Blogger Old Path, at 12:23 AM  

  • Hi Michael,

    I agree with Sunil when he says the common man often just wishes to get on with his life, rather than struggle (in terms of effort and time) to get a job done without paying bribes.

    Regarding the Rs 50 to the traffic police example, what I have often noticed (at least in Madras) is that the cops stop vehicles arbitrarily and demand to see the license. If you have it, then they would ask for the insurance receipt. And then the pollution-control certificate. Even if you have everything, they might wish to see everything in original (in case you produced photocopies). The point is they are determined to wheedle out Rs 50 come-what-may...

    What may be needed is a strict enforcement of rules. I think this may be possible once a committed party comes to power. Which again comes down to the people themselves.

    Another solution (more plausible?) may be to computerise wherever possible and make things automatic. The less people required to complete a task, the less people there are to bribe!

    By Anonymous Srikanth, at 4:14 AM  

  • Hi Shrikanth, Madhu, and Srikanth
    Shrikanth: Thank you.
    Madhu: I agree with what you say. It will take time to rid India of corruption and, of course, it may never happen completely. Traditions die hard. Just look at dowry.
    Srikanth: That's a good point. There is a difference between accepting bribes and actively soliticing them.
    The idea of replacing many of the people who now accept bribes with computers is interesting, but I'm not sure how this could happen. Can you imagine being pulled over by a robocop? Hmm.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 7:02 AM  

  • Hi Michael,
    Note the emphasis added below:

    to computerise wherever possible and make things automatic

    Got to hurry, or would give some instances...

    By Anonymous Srikanth, at 11:33 AM  

  • Nice post, Michael. I wanted to link it on DesiPundit but Saket beat me to it :)

    Regards corruption, it is fine to have a list regards the causes of corruption but I believe that each society has different reasons. Refusing to pay up may be fine (no pun intended) in traffic-related incidents but in cases where you interact with corrupt government officials who demand a bribe on a daily basis, it can be hard to refuse. I can ramble on relating my dad's personal experiences and the dilemmas he faced but will keep that for later.

    By Blogger Patrix, at 3:40 PM  

  • i beg to differ on several points. a) re founding fathers. wWho says corruption is not there in the US? give me a break- they have institutionalised it so much that it is called a sales comision- NOT kickbacks! who do u think is messing around with the world's enivironment & agiculture, currupt American seed companies who want to own the farmers of the world. the past year the Wall Street Journal was full of articles on all the top guys in different MNCs who got into the slammer for giving bribes to politicians in Asia & Africa to push their agendas. So pleade it takes 2 to tango.
    b) public apathy as gawker mentioned- u think that the US doesnt have their share of such people? yesterday some of us stood at an intersection to support a solar bill. it was called Honk 4 solar & guess what? most people stared at us and just drove on. very few honked! This in SUnnY California 30 miles north of Santa Cruz- the hotbed of alternative fuel activism in the state! and dont forget, most democracies have very low electoral turnouts these days.
    c)as 4 refusing to pay- it is very easy for us to talk about doing so as we r not directly affected. (i used to think so too until a dear friend of mine put me to right in that matter)when ur mother is in a serious condition and needs immediate medical attention, then u forget bribe everything-i just want the best possible medical care, likewise with education.unfortunately noone connects those moments with those moments when we in our respective societal roles have not given of our best.

    The buck stops guess where- right at us, we the people, not someone out there- on the top or bottom- but us!

    By Blogger blokes, at 5:43 PM  

  • Good Post Michael
    I feel that tradition or to be more precise, religion/morality works both ways.It can work positively as there would be some people who would consider taking (and giving) bribes sinful.

    Secondly Saddam Hussein can hardly be said to be the founding father of modern day Iraq.
    I am doubtful of the role of "education" in lessening corruption .Consider Italy for instance

    By Blogger history_lover, at 4:54 AM  

  • Vimochana has failed miserably to show every death as a dowry death. After campaigns by Sangyabalya and Asha Kiran the Vimochana extremists are keeping mum on these bogus cases.

    When a married woman has extramarital affair and she attempts suicide, even that is coloured as dowry death by her parents and huge sums of money is demanded for dropping the cases.

    Feminists are extremely famous for lying.

    Number of men forced to suicide by their wives is much more than dowry deaths.

    Out of genuine 6250 deaths (reported by Arjun singh this year), one has to classify them first as

    1) Deaths by suicide
    (say about 3000)
    2) Killed by husband
    (say about 2000)

    3) Killed by in-laws
    (say about 1250)

    It is important to put same figures for men as well.

    1) Men committing suicide within 7 years of marriage.
    (about 15000)
    2) Men murdered by wives.
    (say about 800)
    3) Men murdered by in-law.

    It is important to present both sides of statistics. Half truths are more dangerous than lying.

    The suicide rate of men goes up by 50% after marriage where as for women it remains same.

    BTW, why the hell women do not marry down (like men) ?

    By Blogger Sumanth, at 1:50 PM  

  • Hi Srikanth, Patrix, and Blokes
    Srikanth: Yes, you did say "wherever possible" I stand corrected.

    Patrix: Indeed,there is a difference between offering a bribe and paying one when it is implicitly asked for. But everyone should atleast feel bad about bribes.

    Blokes: Perhaps you would have had more success if you had a sign saying "Don't honk if you support solar energy" Many people don't like to honk.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 6:51 AM  

  • Hi History_lover and Sumanth

    History_lover: You are correct, Saddam Hussein was not the founder of Iraq. The Baath party was founded by fascists though.

    Sumanth: You raise very interesting points. I think there may still be much more pressure on men to be the primary breadwinner all around the world. Sometimes this pressure can lead to serious mental illness.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 6:56 AM  

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