Two or three things I know about corruption

I wanted to say a few words about corruption, a topic much in the news these days, especially in India. For those who haven’t been following, the big news last weekend was, as reported by the BBC, that “Indian anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare… ended a high-profile hunger strike in Delhi after 12 days.” Hazare’s campaign has been a topic of much debate, with some of the most interesting discussions taking place on the Indian blog where even the likes of Partha Chatterjee and Arjun Appadurai have seen fit to jump in the fray. This link, to their Anna Hazare tag, will give you an overview of all their posts on the topic. It makes for fascinating reading, and I encourage everyone to take the time to dig in.

There are a couple of issues dominating the discussion. The first is whether the protesters who supported Hazare are dupes of right-wing parties — a claim which echoes similar debates about the Tea Party Movement in the US? The second is whether the bill being proposed by Hazare will make India more democratic by cutting down on corruption, or less democratic by creating a government body with too much power over elected representatives of the people? And the third issue is whether or not ridding the nation of corruption will make for a more just society, or whether corruption offers the disenfranchised important wiggle-room in dealing with state power, wiggle-room usually preserved for the elite?

I don’t have much insight into the first two questions, although I’ll admit that my sympathies usually lie with writers like Arundhati Roy who has been very critical of Hazare and his supporters. I do, however, have some small insight into the issue of corruption in India, having recently completed a documentary film in which corruption was one of the central themes. My wife, Shashwati Talukdar, and I have spent the past five years making frequent trips to an urban ghetto in Ahmedabad, in Western India, where we filmed a troupe of young actors who use street theater to protest against police brutality and corruption. I have also published two academic articles about the history and ethnography of the community.

The Chhara are one of 198 communities throughout India, an estimated 60 million people in India today, who were labeled “born criminals” by the British under the “Criminal Tribes Act,” first passed in 1871. Even though the act was abolished, the stigma of criminality still remains, and it is difficult for the Chhara to find legitimate work. As a result, many turn to brewing liquor, which is illegal in the dry state of Gujarat. It is this home-brewed liquor that is the focus of much of the day-to-day corruption which pervades the community. The police turn a blind eye to the strong-smelling alcohol stills bubbling away in nearly two thirds of the homes, while simultaneously taking a cut of the profits in the form of bribes. Costumers come to Chharanagar from all over the city to get a drink.

While this seems like a win-win situation, one which might support the claim by some of the Kafila bloggers that corruption is empowering for the poor, the truth is both darker and more complicated. In fact, both the police and the Chhara are trapped in a vicious circle with no way of getting out. The police refused to be interviewed for the film, so we didn’t get tell their story as fully as we would have liked, but we’ve been able to piece together bits and pieces over the years.

In short, applicants to the police force have to pay bribes to get into the police academy, but they can’t afford the bribes, so they have to borrow the money at exorbitant rates from money-lenders. To pay off the interest on the loans they then need to collect bribes, and because the Chhara community generates a fair amount of illegal revenue, they all wish to be assigned to the local police station which oversees the Chhara community, but getting assigned there requires another hefty bribe… Because the Police depend on the illegal activities of the Chhara for their livelihood they will even resort to force to keep Chhara from “going straight.” They also administer beatings and torture to ensure that the bribes are paid in a regular and timely manner.

Nor did bribery seem to significantly protect the Chhara from arbitrary detention and torture. Instead, what worked for the community was the ability to organize around street theater. While problems persist, the existence of Budhan Theatre (the name of the street theater movement) has helped temper the worst excesses of police violence. On the other hand, in Bhavnagar, a coastal town with a Chhara community that also brews liquor, the situation was much worse. We also saw significant class differences in both communities. It is often the most vulnerable (i.e. poor widows) who were subject to the worst violence.

Having said all that, if corruption were magically eliminated, I’m not sure it would be a good thing for the Chhara – at least not in the short term. While there are new opportunities emerging for the more educated sections of the community, a significant number of Chhara still depend on illegal activities for their income.

Shuddhabrata Sengupta argues that corruption offers wiggle-room to those who fail to easily fit within the four corners of the law:

For the vast majorities who face the glare of documents, the demand for transparency, the imperative to come clean and be visible – corruption offers an occasional patch of friendly shade. Corruption, at least as a certain looseness with the law and with the regulatory power of the legal apparatus, is what keeps this society humane at its deeper, darker recesses.

I’m sympathetic to this argument. Certainly corruption helps the less fortunate Chhara make ends meet when they can’t find more legitimate employment; but the corruption we observed in Chharangar cannot be described as “humane” by any stretch of the imagination. Corruption keeps the Chhara (as well as the police) trapped in a cycle of violence, and the only way out has been the grassroots political organizing of Budhan Theatre. Gramsci said that “between coercion and consent lies corruption and fraud” which I think aptly describes the situation in Chharangar, where “common sense” is very much determined by the logic of corruption which pervades daily life. I worry about those who would romanticize petty corruption as liberating, even as I acknowledge that the absence of corruption may very well be worse…

3 thoughts on “Two or three things I know about corruption

  1. During the American progressive era (ca. 1900-1930) some of the most determined anti-corruption crusaders were also overt, aggressive racists and anti-Catholic nativists. Alcohol, gambling, and prostitution were usually associated with one ethnic minority or another, including now-mainstream groups like Germans and Irish.

    Certain forms of anti-corruption raining and administration of police make policemen afraid ever to give anyone a break — strictly by the book. It’s a tricky question because everyone opposes police arresting people on whim, but sometimes if police have the option of using their own judgment about letting people go the result can be more humane, but it can also result in favoritism.

    I think that zero tolerance policing is generally regarded as excessive and harmful — except by the electorate, when applied to minority communities. But the electorate fully agrees when zero tolerance is applied to them.

    I know that there’s a sociological literature, but I can’t remember any names or titles.

  2. Another line of argument in this debate is that anti-corruption should go along with democratisation, and access to Justice.

    For instance the National Campaign for the Right to Information has put forward such proposals.

    The concept of “adjustment” in India is well known. The gap between the formal and what is livable is well established, possibly because governance was originally imposed by an imperial power, and a lot of the same statute is still on the books, unsympathetically framed.

    However to say that corruption is liberating is to say that passive resistance is liberating: It misses the point of where the oppression is coming from.

    So the debate on the Lokpal is interesting because it raises the profile of debates on how the law came to be the way it is, and how it is implicated with the wider distribution of resources in India.

    As Kerim points out many government officials have to pay for access to their jobs. But what allows that to happen? Why are the officials that ask for this money never prosecuted? Why are people so desperate that they will pay this money?

    I think it is important that Anthropology links a consideration of local categories with these wider questions.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    I think the real issue is, in some sense, not corruption, but a scarcity of jobs in general. I live in a small-town in India (population: 200000, yes, that’s what counts as small back home) and in a sense the only occupation that’s viable if one stays back is to work for the government (banks, electricity boards, what have you) or to become a teacher.

    The teacher story is an even stranger one. There’s a big demand for schools and colleges in India and entrepreneurs fall over themselves to start one (which means more bribes, since most of these schools don’t really have any facilities). The hope is to stay a school long enough to be eligible for government aid. And so till these schools become financially viable, they don’t pay their teachers at all (so in effect, this is like paying to become a teacher). Which, of course, means that the said teachers need to find a way to make a living – hence a whole new parallel economy of private tuition and coaching classes gets sustained.

    I’m going to stop here. But it’s nice that Anna has been able to inspire the middle-class – which in India has been typically apathetic and a-political. But I’m pretty sure that a Jan Lokpal bill will do nothing to curb corruption in India.

Comments are closed.