Corruption: A Very Severe Handicap for Human Rights

The octopus of corruption has spread its ugly tentacles over the whole world and as a result, the corruption endemic commands a reprehensible global presence. The undeniable fact, therefore, is that, corruption cannot be reckoned as a mere country or region specific problem; it is far wider phenomenon now. Whether developed or developing nation, corruption is omnipresent; may be with varying force and venality. Experience has shown us that existence and spread of evils in any society is bound to harm the well-being and growth of such societies. Corruption is one such evil, the mere existence of which can bring havoc to any society. We have to understand that the vice of corruption is capable of being more dangerous than the viruses of AIDS or SARS. People world over and especially those in poor and developing countries, have to be put on high alert that the collapse of humanity's very existence in good health, order and peace is imminent, if the missile-fast spread of corruption is not contained effectively and early.

Corruption causes massive human deprivations and creates sudden and extreme income inequalities; it introduces uncertainties into the economic environment and forms webs of illegal obligations. Extortions, robberies, assaults, crimes on women, children and the weak and even all that is associated with terrorism and under-world are some of the outward expressions or manifestations of corruption that hurt human beings and their rights deeply and more.  As corruption leads to discrimination and arbitrariness in decision-making, established rules, regulations and procedures become meaningless; peoples' fundamental rights to corruption- free services from public institutions and Governments get trampled mercilessly. The sum of all these, rise as notorious impediments against protection and promotion of human rights and ultimately violates a very wide spectrum of human rights, deeply.

A study carried out by the World Bank concludes that 'wide spread corruption is a symptom of poorly functioning state.' In a poorly functioning state, we cannot expect desired levels of protection of peoples' rights and fulfillment of Governmental obligations. In many poor and developing countries, where human rights conditions are not yet at satisfactory levels, the crisis bell is heard ringing louder indicating worsening human rights conditions due to corruption strangling the lives of people. From such contexts, the inference is that corruption is not only a symptom of poorly functioning state, but a symptom of many other underlying problems and deeper maladies impeding development and peoples' enjoyment of even guaranteed basic rights.

There is urgent need for all right minded citizens everywhere to join hands for ensuring eradication of the seemingly uncontrollable monster of corruption and help mankind live free from anarchy and violations of human rights. There is also a greater need to understand that combating corruption is not just about punishing corrupt politicians and bureaucrats but about saving human lives, human rights and peace everywhere.


The term  (and even the 'techniques' of practice of) 'corruption' is now universally familiar and is commonly understood to mean the same thing everywhere and in all cultures. But it is interesting to note that the term 'corruption' has remained elusive from any comprehensive definition thus far. In this context, the dictionary meaning of 'corruption' -'decomposition, moral deterioration' etc is highly illuminative indicating the end- state when the cancer of corruption spreads into any system.  It would be beneficial to move on after a look at some of the definitions constructed by agencies engaged in studies and research on corruption. The Encyclopedia Americana gave a very broad definition of corruption as  'the unsanctioned use of public/political resources and/or goods for non-public ends.The Transparency International (1996), put the same crisply in different words, defining corruption as  'the misuse of public power for private profit'. The World Bank, in its attempt to define corruption, held it as 'diversion of state revenues.From all these definitions, we could observe that in essence, the basic constituents of corruption remain the same irrespective of the period or place of definition. Corruption occurs mostly within the public domain and is perpetrated by public personalities (political office holders or bureaucrats). Therefore, corruption certainly stings the public more and the poor most. In any act of corruption, there is a definite ingredient of  'misconduct' as the act of corruption is mostly committed in consideration of personal gain or profit,and or against intended legal purposes. The misconduct of public officials indulging in corruption is characterized by one or more of the following happenings:


  1. Withholding of service/ goods/ information that, by law, and by right, should have been provided/ divulged.

  2. Provision of service/ goods/ information that, by law, and by right, should not have been provided/ divulged.

  3. The withholding/ the provision of said service/ goods/ information is in the power of the withholder/ the provider and that the withholding/ provisions of said service/ goods/ information constitute a legitimate and substantial part of the authority or the function of the withholder/ provider.

  4. The service/ goods/ information   is provided/ divulged is provided/ divulged against a benefit from the recipient.

  5. The service/goods/ information withheld is done so because no benefit was provided/ promised by the recipient.

Apart from the characteristics listed above, the venal behaviors of such acts vary in accordance with the outcomes and degrees of harm brought to the poor.

a) The Speed dynamics Fees: in many cases, this happens due to the interests of the receivers in accelerating decisions, provision of goods/services/ information. If done rightly (without crossing the lines of legalities), this type can even become beneficial to people; but those poor who cannot pay for altering the speed dynamics have to wait till the customary red-tape yields.

b) The Income supplement: The main aim of the corrupt provider is to augment his income illegally; the venality lies with the development of   'by-passes', 'techniques' to over ride usual practices and seamlessly incorporating them in the decision-making process. The poor who cannot contribute to the income supplement of the provider has to suffer forever.

c) The Decision-alteration charges: This is where the line is frequently crossed; bribes and promises of bribes actually alter decisions to the advantage of the one who bribes. There are possibilities for thwarting law and many to be hurt by the few. The economy is skewed and economic outcomes are distorted. This kind of corruption should be uprooted on both utilitarian grounds and moral ones.


d) The Subscriptions for subversions: This kind of corruption is by far the most damaging, anti-national and anti-people. The corrupt collusions lead to the subversion of the flow of correct vital information to the authorities. Wrong information /certification is often issued (E.g.:  about stability of buildings, bridges; about utility and efficiency of arms/ammunitions for defense units; about validity of degrees/diplomas issued to professionals in medicine, engineering etc).  The safety of the nation and human lives shall be at stake and so more vigilance is required to check this kind of corruption.


e) Advances for allocation:  This category of corruption involves paying bribes to politicians and political decision makers in order to affect the allocation of economic resources and material wealth or the rights thereto. Concessions, exemptions, licenses, permits, leasing/selling of public assets to private hands, tenders are some of the subjects that induce advances for allocation. In this case also, the damage would be materially enormous and visible. The acts involved could become irreversible (public assets can be sold at under-valued rates) and pernicious (a factory sold to personal profit seeking, money-minded investors could bring early collapse and leave its workers in the lurch) throwing public interest to the far backyards. Any one ' be that a civil servant or elected representative of people' who 'manipulates authorities to take economic benefit illegally' is cheating the society and the country'.

Apart from the above, at times, even in the absence of bribery, abuse of public office for personal benefit can happen through unfair patronage, nepotism, the theft or diversion of state assets/ revenues etc. This is where flouting of all norms, rules etc is done without any shame and sense of responsibilities.

Perpetration of corrupt acts, whatever be their forms, undeniably, infringes upon fundamental rights and freedoms recognized in the constitution of countries and international instruments.  When a person is denied access to public funded services simply because he is not able/ not willing to give bribe or when a person becomes a victim of nepotism or favoritism, the principles of non-discrimination, provisions for equal opportunities, equal treatment before law and the fundamental concept of equality gets brutal trampling.  Public officials bending law for personal gain or for favoring some one illegally, deserve to be proclaimed as offenders on grounds of functioning as anti-people and anti-national.

Corruption has become a freelance activity of everyone, everywhere. In Europe, stories of political parties/officials having taken huge kickbacks for public works projects are heard frequently. In countries like Belgium, Italy, Austria, France and Spain, considerable numbers of political figures are being actively investigated. In Britain, over the years, many Members of Parliament have come under a cloud of scandals involving corruption and personal/political interests. In China, bureaucrats have 'commercialised their administrative powers' and are no different from their counterparts elsewhere. In Japan, Philippines heads have often rolled due to open indulgence in corruption. People in developing countries cannot console themselves on the fact that 'corruption is everywhere.' There is urgent need to ponder seriously over the causes and effects of corruption in the systems and to find ways out of the menace.

Coming to India, we know that Kickbacks supposedly paid to intermediary agents/ political personalities for defense procurements have rocked the nation  as early as in 1948 (purchase of jeeps for Army, by Mr V.K. Krishna Menon) and again in 1986 (Howitzer Gun Deal- remember Bofors!). The Mundra Scandal, The Malavya Deal, The Pratab Singh Kairon case, to mention a few, are 'shining examples' of  'pioneering' political and bureaucratic corruption in India since independence. Following such 'illustrious men', there is a shamelessly perennial rush to add names to the un-ending and ever-growing list of politicians and top bureaucrats charged and punished under the Prevention of Corruption Act for blatant acts of corruption and amassing of wealth beyond conceivable proportions. There appears to be no deterrent to the 'brave Indians' of the team playing the tactful game of corruption in all walks of life!

Causes of Corruption

A major cause for the flourishing of corruption is the public misconception about it. People are mostly unaware of the debilitating effects of corruption on development and human rights. They appear to condone corruption rather than fight it out strongly. Cases where the society tends to shelter corrupt individuals instead of exposing them are not scarce now.

The widespread practice of corruption can be attributed, directly or indirectly, to the strength or weakness of the socio-political and legal systems in the country in question. Studies have pointed out that corruption does not flourish in countries with a stronger legal system that incorporates the principles of accountability and transparency.  This indicates that the absence of accountability, transparency or existing inefficiency of the law enforcement bodies and the judiciary offer fertile grounds for the growth of corruption. 

The Transparency International Source Book attributes corruption to 'poverty, prosperity (wealth) and to cultural traits in some instances.' The World Bank describes corruption-leading factors as  'contextual, rooted in a country's policies, bureaucratic traditions, political development and social history.Another research Economist lists 'economic deprivation, system-related causes and culture-related factors' as the major causes of corruption.'  Controlling distribution of benefits and imposition of costs, 'agents' having discretionary powers' are also considered as further ingredients of corruption-inducing behaviors.

Corruption is also often "imported" by multinationals, foreign investors, and expatriates. They introduce it at all levels of governments, in order to expedite matters or secure a beneficial outcome. In international negotiations, it has become common to companies to' wine, dine, entertain and bribe officials, especially across international borders, to obtain business both illegally and unfairly.

Low pay of officials; absence of incentives for efficient and honest performances; high tax structures/customs duties; prevalence of contract systems, practice of offering concessions /waivers; unchecked election expenses; vote-buying; very inefficient management of the queue system; absence of effective information, monitoring systems and above all, the utter lack of collective political and public will and bold initiatives to check the monster, help corruption get entrenched in our systems and harm ordinary citizens and their rights to development and prosperity.

Institutions susceptible for corruption

Studies conducted in many countries indicate that some institutions are more prone to corruption than others. The very nature of such institutions involves their employees in making decisions having direct or indirect financial implications for their clients or beneficiaries. This poses the ever-present temptation on the part of employees to secure benefits for themselves.

Institutions involved in the collection of government dues and which exercise discretionary powers on the rights and entitlements of people; Institutions involved in accepting payments for the governments in return for acquiring goods and service are in the  'higher possibilities' list. Another economist has added 'construction related institutions' to the list. Customs authority, Inland Revenue, Investment and Business licensing, Road Transport (issuance of driving licenses), Rental Houses Administration, Standardization Agency and Municipalities, Police, Judiciary and generally institutions/ departments having discretionary powers and the involvement of monetary interest in the operations of government institutions seem to be corrupt-prone departments.

Should we worry about corruption?

Corruption is directly linked with the well being of the society more so in a developing economy like India.  Four key characteristics identified as specific to corruption in the region are more damaging than corruption in other wealthier parts of the world.

Corruption Upstream: Corruption in many developing countries including India occurs up-stream, not down-stream. Such up-stream corruption, i.e., corruption at the top is more powerful to distort fundamental decisions about developmental priorities, policies, and projects. Due to top-level corruption, core decisions would not be taken through transparent procedures and on merit. Public institutions (and even legislative ones) would be kept in dark until the harm is done. This is cause enough to worry.

Corruption money winged: Corruption money in the poor countries has wings! . Most of the corrupt gains (slush money) are easily spirited out to safe havens, like Swiss bank, abroad and the local economy is drained completely. At least, if corruption money is ploughed back into domestic production and investments, it may help. But such domestic investments of corrupt money in poor countries are rare and the serious effects brought due to the drain on their economies are common. Can we keep quiet?


Corruption Promoted:  It is unfortunate that corruption in countries like India often leads to promotions, rarely to prisons. The big fish - unless they belong to the opposition - rarely fry. The most frustrating aspect of corruption in countries like India, is that the corrupt are often too powerful to go through any honest process of accountability and they escape; the small fish and the less powerful ones are caught in the net and such 'captures' are used for parading 'fair implementation of law' and 'law taking its course.' Should these hoodwink us?


Corruption amidst poverty: Corruption occurring in countries like India occurs amidst appalling poverty and socio economic inequalities. Corruption in rich countries may be tolerable, though reprehensible; in poverty-stricken countries where the majority of the population is still not able to meet their basic needs, corruption is nothing less than political dynamite. Due to the massive human deprivation and even more extreme income inequalities created by corruption, the systems may collapse sooner. Can we keep ourselves away from such eventualities?


What can we do?

There should be no hesitation to bring in innovative and meaningful structural reforms in our systems. We should strive to make public functioning transparent and public officials more accountable. Our tax/customs, business transactions have to be simplified and made transparent; opportunities for public officials getting corrupt should be minimized through carefully planned reforms. There should be a beneficial reduction of discretionary powers of public officials. Benefits of public officials remaining honest should be increased. Strict, credible and unbiased enforcement of anti-corruption laws should become a normal affair.

A through overhaul in civil service, police and other corrupt-prone institutions/ departments should be made for ensuring enhanced transparency and accountability in their functioning. Rationalistic curbs on election expenses should be brought in immediately; efficient management of the queue system for public services/benefits should be introduced and there should be relentless battles against unqualified obtaining governmental benefits meant for the needy poor. All these attempts could help create a corruption- free climate conducive for the promotion of civil liberties / human rights wherein a culture of respect for others and others' rights will flourish.

To eradicate corruption, it is always essential to tackle both givers and takers. Such an understanding should be the guiding factor in our attempts to weed out corruption. The givers, in many cases aid, abet and actively induce the takers because of their impatience to wait for their opportunities (in the queue system) or they want decisions/things/services illegally for personal gain or for depriving larger public from lawful benefits and for subversion of national interests. A culture of self-restraint should be inculcated in the minds and actions of  the people to desist from paying and taking corruption.

[i] Susan Rose-Ackerman, 'corruption and Development', ABCD, 1977, World Bank (pp 35-57)
[ii]Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English.
[iii]The Encyclopedia Americana, 1955, p.22
[iv]Susan Rose  (1997), cited. i.
[v] http://www.telecom.net.et/~apap/Corruption_Chapter_III.htm
[vi]http://samvak.tripod.com/nm089.html (Dr.  Sam Vaknin, 'The Varieties of Corruption.')
[vii] Bharath Mani Jangam, Seminar on Ways to Eradicate Corruption,  organized by  the Forum of Independent Thinking, Katmandu, Nepal, Nov 1996.
[viii] Transparency International Source Book, 1996
[ix]'Corruption and  development' cited in (i )
[x]Getachew Reda, (1998)
[xi]Susan Rose, (cited i )
[xii]Mesfin Girma, (1999)
[xiii]Human Development Report 1999 ( published by the Mehbub Ul Haq Centre, Islamabad)


More by :  Prof. Raja Mutthirulandi

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