On the Take: The Struggle against Corruption in India

Article excerpt

The problem of corruption in Indian public and private life is vast and complex. According to a 2006 report by the Swiss Banking Association, India has more money hidden in Swiss accounts than the rest of the world combined. If the money in those accounts were returned to India, the government could pay off its debt thirteen times over. Yet India's reputation as a poor country persists and more than 40 percent of its population lives in extreme poverty (on an income of less than $1.25 per day).

Corruption, so deeply woven into the fabric of everyday life here, is at the root of much of India's poverty and helps explain the vast disparity between the rich and the poor. Transparency International, a watchdog NGO based in Berlin whose mandate is to monitor corporate and political corruption in international development, estimates that 55 percent of Indians have firsthand experience in paying or receiving bribes and using influence to get things done.

I'm surprised only by how low the number is. In my experience, corruption is a part of everything in India. It determines how we think, defines our relationships, and dictates our behavior. Our health, safety, routines, and attitudes are all created, infected, and reinforced by it.

It also kills. I knew a child who was electrocuted at a wedding when the caterers set up their tents with live wires. Pay off an inspector and carry on regardless. That goes for building codes, food and drug administration, traffic laws, even medical licensing. Everyone here has a story of an unqualified doctor who botched an operation or a building that collapsed because of substandard construction.

We are so accustomed to assuming the worst (every politician is corrupt, every public servant is on the take, every system is rigged), that it doesn't occur to us that people can still be genuinely good at heart or willing to put their reputations on the line in service of a greater good.

So the recent emergence of the India Against Corruption movement, spearheaded by veteran social activist Anna Hazare, started out as both heartening and astonishing. Heartening, because Hazare, who is nearly eighty and referred to affectionately as "Anna" (elder brother), tapped into the rage the average person feels about what is going on in the country. But astonishing also because he has channeled that anger into a movement so powerful many compare it to the independence struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi in 1947.

The crowds that gathered at Hazare s rallies, and their disciplined nonviolence, were a tribute to the seriousness of purpose the movement inspired. In true Gandhian fashion, Hazare staged a public fast in support of his groups demand that Parliament accept a bill that would create an independent institution to examine charges of corruption against public officials. …