Rummaging through my collection of newspaper clippings I came across one that was of a fairly recent origin. Its sub-head said corruption remains major barrier to growth in India. This earth-shattering finding was made by as unlikely an organization as the World Economic Forum (WEF), a Swiss non-profit based near Geneva. Its mission is supposed to be "... improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas".
What the Forum has unearthed has always been known to most of us although, perhaps, we could never pin point the extent of corruption in the country. The Forum has indicated that in more or less specific terms in its report titled “Building Foundation for Transparency” under its Partnership Against Corruption Initiative. Choosing to look into the sectors of real estate and infrastructure its investigators were told by the Indian protagonists that under the prevailing ‘system’ the bribes paid could be considerable and could account for as much as 50% of the project cost or even more. The prevailing system meant ambiguous norms for change of land use, dodgy land records and the need for multiple clearances and these reasons compel the project developers to pay speed money, presumably, to several individuals and/or outfits. Besides, one could safely presume, rules regarding change in land use are deliberately kept ambiguous to dole out favours by those in authority to big and influential project developers in exchange of big money. These findings, the Forum felt, have “strong implications for the competitiveness of the Indian markets”.
The Forum has used the hammer rather lightly and probably preferred to look away from the reality. That almost all the state governments in India are driven by the real estate and construction lobbies is an established fact. Even the prestigious magazine The Economist had once occasion to remark that state governments in India are more likely to be sold to these lobbies either because of the demands of the political parties in power or the politicians’ own venality. Real estate developers and infrastructure contractors are the ones who are really fat cats and buy off the ministers with their financial muscle. State governments are literally led by their nose and the proof prevails in big bold relief in almost all the cities. Forgetting all the environmental or civic norms, buildings or complexes come up with or without the necessary approvals. What if a project is not approved; money can buy the approval at a later date. Buildings, roads, drainage, dams and almost everything infrastructural are all of poor quality as these thickly line the pockets of officials, bureaucrats and politicians – the thickness of the lining being determined by the station of the recipient in the government. This has been the standard practice since the British days but has assumed huge proportions post-independence as those at the helm have been participating in the game with increasingly greater enthusiasm. The padding of 50% or more has perhaps been forced on the project executor because of the prevailing utter lack of ethical behaviour all over.
Findings of WEF apart, the country’s own Minister of Defence recently had occasion to state in an interview that the VVIP choppers that were procured from AugustaWestland during UPA rule at Rs.300 crores apiece should not have cost more than Rs.150 or 160 crores each. He said kickbacks paid to various people doubled the price of the choppers. All those reported to be mired in the scandal include the security establishment at the highest levels, bureaucrats, a number of Air Force officials including its Air Chief Marshal and a number of politicians including, reportedly, the then ruling party chief. An elaborate charade was played out to bring the AugustaWestland helicopters within reckoning. These were meant for the VVIPs to be flown to high altitude military posts. Even the parameters for the purpose earlier determined for selection were revised to bring in the AugustaWestland helicopters in the field for consideration. And even the test flight that was taken was reported to have been of a different helicopter in a different country- not on the heights of India.
Ever since independence there have been numerous scandals involving defence deals. The corrupt deal of buying jeeps in 1948, though trifling in comparison to the mind-boggling ones of current times, short-changed the Indian Army by as many as 45 jeeps as only 155 were received against 200 for which payment had been made. Only Rs. 18 lakh were eaten up. While Krishna Menon, the main culprit, was made a minister, the prime mister brushed the matter under the carpet. Since then, however, numerous magnum-sized defence deals were negotiated and billions of rupees were eaten up by unscrupulous politicians, bureaucrats, officials and middlemen which could have bought thousands of jeeps, howitzers fighter planes and VVIP choppers.
Why defence, every sphere in governance is infested with corruption. From allocation of coal mines to allocation of telecom spectrum, from holding the Commonwealth Games to even granting approval for opening of medical colleges, every sector of the government has somehow failed to remain untouched by corruption. At the central level the corrupt practices are fewer but the states are dens of corruption. So many chief ministers and other ministers have been caught with their hands in the till. In Bihar a former chief minister literally looted the state treasury as he allowed fraudulent payments from it for cattle-feed for personal gains. There are rackets galore and politicians and officials of the states make merry.
The moral and ethical standards have plummeted so low that every government servant, high or low, wants to be a crorepati (billionaire). There have been cases where the employees of the lowest ranks have been found to have stashed away a billion or more. An aspiring society apparently is trying to satisfy its aspirations mostly by immoral and corrupt means and making no bones about it. If the entire governmental structure is predominantly corrupt can the country ever prosper? Narendra Modi, the present Prime Minister, may try his best but the progress, if at all, will be at snail’s pace – especially because of the states that will drag him down.
Once upon a time India was known as “Sone ki chidia”, a “golden sparrow”, because of its immense riches. Ancient India seemed to have had prosperous trade with the countries in West and South-East Asia. There was intense interaction with the peoples of its trading partners. Foreigners are reported to have wondered at the gold on temples and on bodies of women. The riches attracted invaders to come to pillage and plunder. Even Lord Clive was astounded to see the riches of Murshidabad in Bengal which was at that time richer than even London. Mark Twain too was stunned by the “land of dreams and romance, fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, splendour and rags, of palaces and hovels...”that was India
Whether Muslims or British, they all came and looted the country and took away its wealth. Now that the foreigners are gone, it is our “netas”(politicians) who are doing the same. Trillions of rupees have been siphoned off by them since independence in collaboration with their partners in crime. But for them and their nefarious gangs, the country could have quite possibly regained by now the sobriquet of “Sone ki Chidia”.