The Method Behind The Madness

When the official system learns to loot the official treasury, it also targets the natural estate, the biggest property of the modern state. Good environmental management demands effective regulation to bring about a balance between environment and development. But corruption makes it extremely difficult to implement environmental laws that aim to control polluters. It is therefore not surprising that India's urban air and water are today extremely polluted despite the existence of numerous laws and official institutions to protect them. Tales of timber and wildlife smuggling abound in the media. ANIL AGARWAL and SUNITA NARAIN examine how corruption gnaws at the vitals of the Indian environment, a review being published to support environmentalist and social worker Anna Hazare's campaign against corruption

 
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

The Method Behind The Madness

-- (Credit: Graphics Simulation: Akhilesh<) SILENCE OF THE SCAMS
Corruption is increasingly tightening its grip over the daily lives of Indian citizens. Experts describe it as a form of 'tidal corruption'. It has, therefore, become vital to shift attention from the corrupt to the system which breeds corruption

The silence is deafening. The corrupt observe a code of silence. So do the corrupted. And the people suffer in silence. If only all the trees and the various species that live in India's environment could speak, they, too, would speak volumes about corruption. But given their existential reality, they also suffer corruption in silence. Corruption makes a mockery of the system of governance, of democracy and of development efforts. It leads to the degradation of the environment, robs regeneration efforts of effectiveness and prevents efforts to control pollution.

Eminent economist Gunnar Myrdal, writing in his famous trilogy Asian Drama: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations in 1968, had said; "Although corruption is very much an issue of public debate in all South Asian countries, it is almost taboo as a research topic and is rarely mentioned in scholarly discussions of the problems of government and planning." He added, "...a commonly expressed opinion in India is that administrative corruption, in its various forms, is all around us all the time and that it is rising."

It is now 30 years since Myrdal published his study. Precious little has changed since then except that corruption has risen. In recent years, the media, the courts and the civil society, especially in India, have been paying greater attention to high-level corruption within the political world.

Apart from the public interest cases that have been filed against allegedly corrupt politicians, anti-corruption campaigns led by Krishna Bhaurao Hazare (popularly known as Anna Hazare), an environment activist-turned-corruption crusader, have received considerable media publicity. But this has resulted in more talk about "the corrupt" instead of a debate on the "sources and causes of corruption". It is equally, if not more, important that the administrative form of corruption or the reasons behind it are also highlighted by the media. When we think of corruption, we think of defence deals and gas pipelines or fodder and stock market scams. The focus is always on the corrupt.

Meanwhile, the system of governance is being eroded also by the corrupt at a much lower level. It is often the corruption of these minor functionaries which affects the common person. When it comes to dealing with problems such as poverty, illiteracy, creating a balance between the environment and development, and providing everyone with access to clean drinking water and decent, basic health services, low-level corruption is the major roadblock.

Experiences from abroad also have something to teach us. The us, Japan and South Korea are among the most dynamic countries in the world where higher political echelons are known to be riddled with corrupt practices. But what differentiates these countries from South Asian countries, such as India, is that once a politician gets enmeshed in a corruption scandal, regardless of whether that politician is a president or a prime minister, he/she has to pay a price. On the other hand, in India the famous hawala case, in which several politicians were charged but no evidence was unearthed, has shown that our investigation agencies leave a lot to be desired. Moreover, there is almost no low-level corruption in these countries, leaving the average citizen free from exposure to corruption.

The inefficiency, sloth and inaction of the Indian government is taking a far heavier toll on its citizens, the economy and development than any high-level political corruption ever can. Today corruption affects the daily life of every Indian citizen. India today suffers from what a corruption expert has called the phenomenon of "tidal corruption". As a result, everybody joins in the plunder of state resources, including state-owned natural resources. Corrupt junior forest officials abet the pillage of forest produce. Those who live in the jungle have no stake in saving the woods. Hence they prefer to join in the plunder. Corrupt government officials siphon funds meant to clean drains, repair roads and dispose off garbage. The residents know their grievances will not be redressed. They, therefore, keep quiet and, thus, abet the plunder.

The state-owned Indian Oil Corporation knows that it is supplying dirty fuel well below international standards despite the fact that their actions are responsible for the deaths of thousands of urban Indians. Moreover, there is enormous adulteration of diesel with kerosene because kerosene is priced cheaper. In addition, various waste streams coming out from refineries are purchased and used to adulterate motor fuels, especially petrol which is heavily taxed and, therefore, very expensive. Monitoring of this adulteration is extremely poor. And as a result nobody really knows precisely what is the exact nature of the chemical soup that marks India's urban air. The public also participates in this corruption by keeping quiet about the pollution of the air.

India's governance system was developed in the 19th century by a colonial power whose key interest was to exploit the country and extract as much wealth as it could for its own economic growth. This governance system has continued into the post-independence period and it cannot lead India to a dynamic future in the 21st century, especially a future which will be riddled with problems of heavy population growth, industrialisation, urbanisation, agricultural modernisation, poverty, illiteracy and pollution. It is obvious that India's governance system must change. It has become critical for us to identify and promote effective efforts to fight corruption. Even if the political system does not respond to this challenge, the civil society must organise a powerful force against it.

Some Western experts and economists tend to argue that corruption may be immoral but it is nothing more than a transaction cost. Such an argument can lead to the belief that Fighting corruption is not important. But that is far from the truth. Various studies have shown that corruption affects the rate of economic growth of nations. But what is even worse is that for those poor people who cannot afford to pay the so-called "transaction costs" - and there are tens of millions of such people in India - corruption tantamounts to oppression and violence by officials and can engender considerable public alienation. Corruption can become a major social evil in highly divided societies in which state officials come from the upper classes. Corrupt officials will ensure that the benefits of official programmes do not reach the poor and the marginalised. Therefore, corruption will have enormous economic, social and ecological costs in a country like India.

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