I believe that corruption is as significant an indicator of a diseased economy as cancer is of a diseased body. If unchecked, it will eventually kill. Corruption is organized violence against the people of a poor country which kills them as surely as putting them into concentration camps, extracting hard labor, starving them, and then pushing them into gas ovens.
Corruption matters because it affects all of us. It affects us even if we neither receive nor pay bribes. We all are passive victims of corruption, even if we are not active participants. It is like a poisonous gas that has been released into the atmosphere and we don’t have the option of not breathing.
Corruption in India today permeates every strata of economic and political life. But its fountainhead is at the top of the political structure, and from there it flows down into every place. It starts off as a trickle. Perhaps a few at the top take a few million while handling money with sticky fingers. Word gets out that so-and-so made so much money.
“That housing deal in the capital was crooked. Did you know that he made $7 million in that deal?”
“No, I did not. That’s bloody amazing.”
“He got away with it.
“He paid off the investigators with part of the money. If you have to steal, steal so much that you can bribe the cops.”
Just a few bad people at the top who steal a significant sum is enough to set the ball rolling. It can be stopped. Hang the first person who steals from the public. But if the first guy who steals a significant enough amount that he can buy his way out, the game is well under way.
Others note that stealing big is the way to go. Petty thievery is not very attractive and what is worse, if caught, you can go to jail. But engage in grand larceny and you can be confident that you will not be punished for it. When the amounts get large enough, you can even buy the supreme court judges.
Yes, the amounts do increase with time. Here’s how. The first few steal $7 million or so. They get away because they are politically connected. Other potential crooks are paying attention. They note that no one went to the gallows. So they get into the game and escalate it. In the next years, the corruption amounts hit $70 million. And once again, no one gets to spend time in jail. The word spreads.
The ante has been upped. More crooks join the game. There’s competition and with it, the more successful ones make out with $300 million in the next few years. The time has come when the newspapers don’t even mention $7 million corruption schemes. The game now is with $300 million prizes.
Time goes on. Crooks note that they have been helping the politicians get elected and in turn the politicians are providing them (the crooks) the cover for their theft. Why not become politicians themselves and cut out the middle-men?
So in about 15 years or so since the start of the small trickle of corruption, crooks start to get elected to office. At first, a few members of parliament and a bunch in the state assemblies. They get there and make money. And no one goes to jail. The word gets around.
More crooks enter politics. It’s the easiest way to make money. The competition among the crooks for higher political office intensifies. The winners start climbing the political hierarchy. Used to be that about 10 percent of the members of an assembly were crooks. Then when that became 20 percent, a crook gets to be the chief minister.
Time passes. The corruption is at a level that the prime minister is a crook. He shields the crooks immediately below him. The crooks at the highest level make $7,000 million. That’s sufficient money to buy the allegiance of the police, all sorts of investigative agencies, and all the judges that are needed. That is sufficient to buy all the journalists. That is sufficient to buy all the expertise needed to tamper with electronic voting machines.
At any level of the structure, except for the very top, corruption exists only because the level above it is corrupt. If a person is not corrupt, he will not tolerate corruption among his subordinates. At the first sign that there’s corruption in his organization, a non-corrupt person will fire those involved.
Conversely, if the top level is corrupt, it gives license to the next level to be corrupt — all the way to the bottom. There is a direct connection between the policeman in the corner accepting a bribe of a few hundred rupees and the chief executive of the country enabling a scam of a few billion dollars.
The policeman reads about the multi-billion dollar scams and trillions stashed away Swiss banks. He knows they get away with it, and justifies his taking a small amount saying that he needs it to make two ends meet. All petty bribes given and taken are given cover by corruption in high places, and justified on grounds that if it’s ok for them, it must be OK.
Corruption affects the economy along multiple dimensions and in complex ways. First order effects are easy to see. The chief engineer of a state electricity board takes bribes from the suppliers of equipment. The suppliers supply inferior parts and the power plants are not maintained.
Lack of power affects the economy of the surrounding area. More money changes hand for getting more of the scarce electric power. Costs go up. The economy produces a bit less than it could have.
The second order effects are more serious. Because corruption is a criminal activity that pays so well and does not extract a penalty, criminals get into politics. In India, politicians eventually make policy. Criminals are not very good at making policy that will help the country. In fact, their goal is to use the system for their benefit, and if that imposes costs on the people, it is not skin off their backs.
The second order effect is therefore lousy policy that retards economic development even more than the first order effects.
India is now at a stage that it is saturated with corruption. The prime minister enables corruption and gets away with it because it is said that he is “clean and honest.” The judges are for hire. The courts get into “telephone justice,” as Justice Stephen Breyer of the US supreme court put it. That’s when a political boss calls a judge to tell him how to rule.
India is at that stage when the politicians and journalists have figured out a business deal to protect each other. The government hands out awards to journalists and the journalists make sure that the masses are misled.
India is at that stage that the only reaction from the masses is “chalta hai.” It has become fatally wounded and does not have the will to stop the life blood spilling out of its guts.
India’s dire situation is a consequence of a very large number of very bad policy decisions taken over decades by people who, around mid last century, were not very smart; and after that by people who were not only not smart but were criminals.
Those acts of commission and omission have killed tens of millions. It will be impossible to estimate very accurately but the lower limit must be at least 100 million people who have died prematurely due to starvation and malnutrition in India since 1947 because of bad people at the top.
That’s more than Pol Pot, Hitler, Leopold II, Stalin, Mao, and all the other tyrants of the world put together killed.
Those leaders of India that killed so many must be charged with crimes against humanity. They must be made to pay for their criminality.
But instead their names are plastered all over the country. Airports, universities, roads, ports, bridges, institutions and every conceivable scheme is named after those same criminals.
Their descendants are getting ready to steal in the hundreds of billions. That will bleed the country even more. Tens of millions will die, slowly starving to death. Half the children of age below five in India are malnourished. Thousands of farmers commit suicide. India has the largest number of illiterates in the world.
And there are people who wonder why India is so pathetically poor. I sometimes wonder: of the two — the criminality of India’s leaders or the stupidity of its people — which is the greater curse.
What say you?