by Dr Laifungbam Debabrata Roy
‘Corruption hurts the poor disproportionately by diverting funds intended for development, undermining a government’s ability to provide basic services, feeding inequality and injustice…”
[Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General]
“The real price of corruption is not paid in currency, after all”. This truism stated in a recent UN report on corruption confronts us in Manipur in every turn of our daily lives. Yet, most of us in Manipur today have never looked at corruption carefully enough, made the real connections, thought things through nor made the simple efforts required to change this ghastly reality that plagues our state, our society and our very homes. We have become inane and callous about corruption in Manipur. We smile and wink as each other when we have to mention passing a few bucks to some official for a favour. Thereby, we become deeply complicit in the phenomenon of corruption, accepting our ready participation in its deep immorality. Corruption in Manipur must come under close scrutiny.
We live with myths, and the myth we all nurture today is the one that accepts that nothing can be done to curb corruption. In Meeteilol, it is called “chatnabee”, something that is in vogue or has become a convention. This myth is as pervasive as the corruption in Manipur today; and also much more damaging. It is high time that we all try to understand the complex phenomenon of corruption, clarify the misconceptions that surround it – aspects that are less well-known and hence tend to be ignored. It is high time because it is possible to stem soaring levels of corruption and it has become our eminent agenda to dissipate defeatist attitudes, which consider corruption as an incurable ailment. If we do not shed out this bane of our society and our government, cast out this “chatnabee” myth that we embrace so unquestioningly, and make this our agenda; we must abandon all our aspirations to provide a hope for our children and their future. If we, the present generation, cannot and would not root out corruption, then we have abdicated every iota of moral right to live and prosper together as a people on our land, on Earth. We are beholden to our children and their children, to the seventh generation, and this is a huge and shared responsibility for every one of us.
Corruption has plagued the world ever since the emergence of organized forms of government as people organized themselves for group living. Until the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many of the now developed countries were riddled with corruption and it took many decades to bring the levels down. Governments across the Asia region have also been preoccupied with this issue. Some countries, Singapore and Hong Kong, China (SAR), for example, have managed to reduce corruption much more swiftly but most other countries in the region have generally made slow progress – they are larger territories and their leadership has proved less resolute. In Manipur, economists must analyse the advent of widespread petty corruption in the context of our struggle for economic development and a democratic polity. In my view, this is a neglected agenda.
Corruption inevitably has an impact on the economy and the society. In recent years, social scientists have become increasingly interested in the study of the political dimension of economic growth and development. Part of this interest can be found in the belief that traditional constructs have not been policy-relevant, especially since they usually fail to emphasize the importance of laws and institutions to economic growth. For example, the neo-classical economics model deals only with choice-through-markets, whereas its policy recommendations are usually implemented through non-market processes by a bureaucracy whose behaviour is not within the model. It is sometimes argued that by ‘greasing the wheels’ corruption speeds things up. But there is little evidence for this from the aggregate standpoint; indeed it seems more likely if businesses readily pay bribes they will simply encourage bureaucrats to unreel yet more red tape. On the other hand, there are many ways in which corruption is likely to hamper growth especially over the long term – for example, if talented people are tempted to make an easy living as corrupt bureaucrats rather than as entrepreneurs. Even those who do run businesses may prefer to remain in the informal sector rather than expand and be faced with greater demands from corrupt officialdom. Corruption is also likely to weaken infrastructure; not only does it drain away funds, it also reduces the quality of investment, producing inadequate transport, power, or communications systems. Bureaucratic corruption is viewed as a practical issue, as a social scientist puts it, involving ‘outright theft, embezzlement of funds or other appropriation of state property, nepotism and the granting of favours to personal acquaintances, and the abuse of public authority and position to exact payments and privileges.’ The corruption within the bureaucracy in Manipur presents the principal burden to our society today.
Corruption undermines human development. This can happen through various channels. It is likely, for example, to corrode ideals of public service, so that corrupt administrations will tend to be less interested in investing in health and education. Even if they wish to, they will find that their activities have hampered economic growth and weakened tax collection, leaving them less to spend on public service programmes. Corruption also affects the quality and composition of public investment. Corrupt officials are less attracted to small-scale projects that involve a large number of actors, preferring large infrastructure projects that offer greater opportunities for collecting rents. This distorts the pattern of public expenditure – away from key public goods such as public health, education and environmental protection, and towards new roads or airports or military hardware.
Corruption also undermines efforts at poverty reduction – by diverting goods and services targeted for the poor to well-off and well-connected households who can afford to bribe officials. The poor also lose out when they have to pay bribes, since they can only afford small amounts, which represent a high proportion of their income. In turn, better human development conditions – wider-spread education, an informed citizenry with voice to influence decision makers in government and businesses – can help combat corruption.
In Manipur, corruption is at its worst in law enforcement, seriously undermining justice. Many police officers are honest and conscientious, but others have a different agenda; rather than serving as guarantors of rights and protection they are sources of harassment and fear. In the rural areas, they may, for example, be in the pockets of rich landowners who use them to control their workforces or their tenants. The police are often in the pay of corrupt politicians and business interests, and may be used, for example, to force poor people off their land to make way for new developments. Or police officers may simply be working for themselves, extracting as much income as they can from their position of power. Poor salaries and working conditions among the lower constabulary are contributory factors.
Police corruption is especially pernicious since it is often accompanied by violence. Police may, after apprehending suspects, choose not to arrest them but instead beat them up or abuse them, and force them to pay for their freedom. Police can also seize people they know to be innocent, threatening them with arrest and demanding payment for release. The poor are the most exposed because they lack the funds or influence needed to defend themselves. In Imphal and other urbanizing towns, among those likely to be harassed are street and women vendors, who have to pay up or see their goods confiscated or destroyed. On the other hand, poor people are less likely to receive any attention if they want to register a complaint.
For tackling police corruption, one of the most important steps is to ensure that complaints against the police are dealt with, by a truly independent body. This is a difficult prescription to fulfill. The law is not only to be enforced but brought into the public domain and discourse. The concepts of “order” and “law”, often used in conjunction, need to be well understood.
It is a state of society where the vast majority of population respects the rule of law, and where the law enforcement agencies observe laws that limit their powers. Maintaining law and order implies firm dealing with occurrences of theft, violence, and disturbance of peace, and rapid enforcement of penalties imposed under criminal law. The “rule of law” is the absolute predominance or supremacy of ordinary law of the land over all citizens, no matter how powerful. First expounded by the UK law Professor A. V. Dicey in his 1885 book ‘Introduction To The Study Of Law Of The Constitution,’ it is based on three principles that (1) legal duties, and liability to punishment, of all citizens, is determined by the ordinary (regular) law and not by any arbitrary official fiat, government decree, or wide discretionary-powers, (2) disputes between citizens and government officials are to be determined by the ordinary courts applying ordinary law, and the (3) fundamental rights of the citizens (freedom of the person, freedom of association, freedom of speech) are rooted in the natural law, and are not dependent on any abstract constitutional concept, declaration, or guaranty.
Other solutions involve changing police structures and operations to make them more efficient and responsive – applying rigid recruitment criteria and absolute avoidance of any form of rent seeking in selection, appointment or functioning, reallocating individuals across tasks, modifying transfer patterns, and carrying out ethical evaluations of those who are up for promotion. The overall intention should be to create more professional forces that enable individual officers to take greater pride in their work.
People tend to have fewer interactions with the court system. But here too they may find that justice has its price. A number of studies across Asia have found that two-thirds or more of the population consider the routine court system to be corrupt, and admit that they themselves, guilty or innocent, will consider it wise to pay bribes. The poor will suffer from a corrupt legal system that offers them little protection – exposing them to arbitrary judgements that may cause them to lose their land, homes, or livelihoods.
Judicial corruption is another aspect of a weakly functioning state. In many countries, judges are appointed or promoted by politically motivated bodies and even judges who want to uphold ethical principles may find themselves subject to heavy political pressure in high-profile cases. Low salaries make it tempting for weak judges to buckle to other pressures too. Some may, for example, consider it more important to support a relative or associate than to uphold the rule of law. They may also fear retribution.
Much of the responsibility for reducing judicial corruption lies with the judges and lawyers – acting individually and through associations or professional bodies. But governments can also minimize judicial corruption. They can, for example, ensure that judges are appointed by independent bodies, serve fixed terms, have salaries that match their experience and qualifications, and are offered all necessary protection. The judicial system should also require judges to give written reasons for their judgements – making greater use of information technology to offer easier access to court documents.
Corruption is also widespread in our social services such as health and education, as well as in public utilities that provide electricity and water. As a result, poor people find themselves excluded from schools or hospitals that they cannot afford, or asked to pay extra simply to gain access to services to which they already have a right.
Corruption can occur within health services at all levels – from grand corruption, as funds are siphoned off during the construction of new hospitals or health centres, to petty corruption as health workers or administrators demand petty bribes just to perform their routine duties. Corruption can also take various forms within health service staffing. This may involve, for example, buying positions at the time of hiring, or excessive absenteeism: reported absenteeism rates cluster around 35 per cent to 40 per cent. Corruption also creeps in via the pharmaceuticals business – at all stages of drug development and supply. For the drug companies, one of the main priorities is to ensure that their products are prescribed, so they are profligate with generous ‘perks’ for doctors.
Corruption, as we all know, is also widespread in our education systems. This can start in the procurement of material and labour for school construction, as corrupt officials siphon off funds for school buildings – which can increase costs between two and eight times. There can also be corruption in the purchase of textbooks, desks, blackboards, and other supplies, as well as in contracts for cleaning services and meals. There are grave irregularities in the hiring of teachers, which in the most extreme form, results in the recruitment of ‘ghost teachers’ or even in the creation of entire ‘ghost institutions’ – with the allocated salaries and other expenses channeled into the pockets of officials. Just as families may need to pay bribes to get into hospitals, they may also have to pay extra to get their children into schools. If governments do not address these problems, schools will continue to transmit a culture of corruption to succeeding generations. The main priority should be closer supervision, especially by allowing communities more control over schools through parent-teacher associations and other local organizations. In the Philippines, for example, a range of civil society groups, from NGOs to churches to Girl and Boy Scout groups, have come together to monitor the delivery of school books. In India, one NGO uses cameras to register the attendance of teachers by taking digital photos that record the date and time.