Graft is becoming a bigger problemâ€”and the government should tackle it
INDIANSâ€™ anger over rising corruption has reached feverish levels. What people are calling a â€œseason of scamsâ€ includes the alleged theft of billions by officials behind last yearâ€™s Commonwealth games in Delhi; $40 billion in revenues lost from the crooked sale of 2G telecoms licences; and over $40 billion stolen in Uttar Pradesh alone from schemes subsidising food and fuel for the poor. Foreign businessmen, who have slashed investment over the past year, rank graft as their biggest headache behind appalling infrastructure. Now Indiaâ€™s anti-corruption chief has been forced out over, well, corruption (see article).
Graft is hardly new in India: the Bofors scandal brought down the government in 1989. But there seems to be more of it about than ever, if only because India is getting richer fast, and the faster the economy grows, the more chances arise for mind-boggling theft. The government says that in the next five-year plan period, which starts next year, $1 trillion will be spent on roads, railways, ports and so on, with billions more on re-equipping the armed forces and welfare. Add in an insatiable appetite for scarce land, water and minerals and a monsoon of bribes is forecast.
Some are inclined to shrug their shoulders. After all, corruption does not seem to be stopping India from growing. Yet imagine how much better the country would be doing without it. Corruption raises costs not just to Indians, but also to the foreigners whose capital India needs. Thanks in part to those scandals, Indiaâ€™s stockmarket was the worst-performing outside the Muslim world over the past year.
To its credit, the government has begun to take action against powerful individuals. Maharashtra stateâ€™s chief minister was forced out over a property scandal. Police have quizzed Suresh Kalmadi, the politician who ran the Commonwealth games. Most strikingly, Andimuthu Raja, the cabinet minister who oversaw the 2G telecom licences, was arrested.
A 2005 act giving the right to information is welcome, as are auctions for public goods, such as last yearâ€™s lucrative sale of the 3G telecom spectrum. Technology is helping. In some states, bids for state contracts are being run online, allowing anti-corruption bodies to monitor them. Gujarat does this for all contracts over 500,000 rupees ($11,000). It also puts land records and death certificates online, cutting down on one form of petty graft. Websites, led by ipaidabribe.com, reveal the cost of graft by publicising the sums demanded for everything from registering a baby to fixing a broken water supply.
The central government should now implement a plan for a universal, computerised ID scheme. It would allow welfare payments to be paid into individualsâ€™ bank accounts, hindering theft by state workers.
Most of all, India must redouble its efforts to liberalise. The state could outsource official tasks, cut red tape and sell wasteful and corrupt state-owned firms (why does the government make watches?). For all that the â€œlicence Rajâ€ was supposedly scrapped two decades ago, it can still take nearly 200 days to get a construction permit and seven years to close a business. Regulations are not, by and large, deterrents to corruption, but a source of it.