The Usual Cut: Is the Indian Anticorruption Movement Misguided?

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Since April 2011, anticorruption protestors have been gathering by the thousands on the streets of Indian cities to demand an end to corruption in public offices. These protestors, who are mostly urban, educated, and middle class, led by the nonviolent social activist Anna Hazare, are calling for the enactment of a new anticorruption law and the establishment of an independent ombudsman to register and investigate complaints of corruption against politicians and bureaucrats. Although I applaud their passion, I can't help but think that they have the wrong solution.

In the summer of 2006, I took over as assistant commissioner of customs at the Custom House in Mumbai. I was twenty-four years old. In my very first hour of work, an employee of a customs broker handling customs formalities for businesses approached me to have four containers of imported electronic goods cleared. As I flipped through his file, he remarked hesitantly, "Madam, you get 20,000 rupees on each container."

I caught my breath, unsure of what I had heard. Having been brought up by an idealistic Naval officer, I had lived most of my life in a vacuum. Through school and college, and then in training for the civil service, I hadn't seen the real world, and I wasn't prepared for this moment. I knew bribery and corruption were common in my country, but sometimes knowing and realizing are different things.

When he saw me getting angry and restless, he tried to explain that such an offering was entirely normal. "Madam, that's the usual cut--0.01 percent of the value of the container is your cut," he told me in a way that made it sound like he was providing me with on-the-job training. In a daze, I asked him to leave. I soon realized that this was the first of the many attempted training sessions I was to have in my five years of service in Indian customs.

Later, I learned more about my interaction with the broker. Not everything was right with his imports, but since he had the right papers, it was difficult to prove that he or the officers who cleared him had done anything illegal. Such bribes, I learned, were commonplace within Indian customs. Importers benefited by receiving their clearances faster and ensuring that the officer at the border did not ask too many questions, and customs officers got their money. At first, staff, brokers, and importers tried to convince me that the arrangement was safe and left no paper trail. They thought it was out of the fear of being caught that I refused to join them.

Over time, I became fascinated with this parallel "grease" economy. I was amazed at how smoothly and efficiently it functioned in the office. I learned that the business of dishonesty was very honestly conducted. I also learned that this was considered by most to be a symbiotic relationship, bringing benefits to customs officials and business without causing anyone else much harm. But such rosy assessments ignore the reality that bribes do in fact have victims, including inconvenient players like myself who do not flow with the current and the people of India who lose precious public money. But even more unsettling was the hypocrisy in people's attitudes. Outside the office, everyone would decry such practices, including the media--at times, owned by the same wealthy business houses I interacted with--and the businesses that formed the industry.

But perhaps worst of all was the culture of acceptance that existed in the office. There was hardly any stigma attached to accepting favors and taking money; at times it felt like it was even encouraged. …