Technology – India’s quiet anti-corruption crusader
Technology, not protest marches, might be the biggest eradicator of corruption in India where under-the-table bribes thrive in the world of face-to-face transactions. Many facets of India’s government still operate in Dickensian offices where floor-to-ceiling stacks of paper files can provide good cover and easy excuses for “delays” that only a sweetener of a few hundred rupees can cut through.
But a less vociferous, potentially as potent march is also underway – the computerisation of India’s vast government network, which when completed at all levels of administration could strip away much of the power that individuals have to elicit bribes or take cuts from others.
Social commentator Madhu Kishwar recently wrote of a classic example in the Indian Express: Municipal officials all over India systematically fleece citizens by sending highly inflated house tax bills. I recall that several years ago, one of my neighbours, let us call him Mr X, received a house tax bill of Rs 1.65 lakh for a small, two-bedroom flat in South Delhi. In sheer panic, he approached a local political worker who claimed “good connections” with municipal officials. This man then went and brokered a deal with the concerned babus. Mr X was asked to pay Rs 25,000 in order to get the 1.65-lakh demand reduced to Rs 7,000 per year. He accepted the deal gladly because it appeared to him as if he was receiving a big favour, even though the falsely inflated bill was actually just a device to frighten him into paying a bribe.
With the introduction of online property tax portals in some municipalities several years ago, where fees are clearly stated and can be paid directly, this kind of manipulation has been eradicated in one stroke. But there are still areas where this service is not available.
A successful entrepreneur from Mumbai told me how several years ago he had gone to the tax office to file his return. He was ushered into a small private cubicle where a smiling soft-spoken official questioned why he was paying so much in taxes, insinuating that the businessman could claim less on paper as long as he gave a little something in return.
“Now I pay my taxes directly online, avoiding such cosy conversations, thank you very much,” he said.
But the digitisation is taking longer to reach rural India.
When Chavvi Rajawat left her corporate city job and decided to put her MBA to use as the sarpanch of her native Rajasthan village (the elected village leader), she could not believe the muck of misinformation she had to wade through in order to make the most basic advancements. She discovered crucial land registration documents were destroyed in a fire. She found an accounting error was stopping the flow of funds that were sanctioned to her village of Soda. And she was hearing that there were financial aid projects her citizens could apply for, but no one knew what they were.
“If these things were online, and if we had connectivity, we could know what is available for people. And if I had seen the report, I would have spotted the error and the (water) project wouldn’t have been delayed by six months,” Rajawat said.
Hearing of Rajawat’s plight, the German software vendor SAP is piloting a governance software system for Rajawat’s village.
The biggest digital effort is the government’s ambitious UID (unique identification) project, which aims to create a biometric database of every Indian. At 1.2 billion people, it would be the world’s largest civic biometric database. The UID will give official identities to many millions currently marginalised by society, helping them get bank accounts into which government aid can be deposited directly. Often such handouts to people living on less than a dollar a day get siphoned off by several middlemen before reaching the poor (if it gets to them at all).
A recent piece in the NYT went into extensive detail of the UID project, aptly summing it up: Just as the information technology industry grew stealthily beneath the nose of the bureaucracy that had traditionally smothered private enterprise, the identity database is quietly embedding itself in India’s bureaucratic fabric even as other efforts to reform India’s government and economy seem to have stalled.
But a volunteer of the India Against Corruption campaign said technology can only do so much to keep dubious officials in line.
“Take a simple example – a bridge collapses. Maybe the junior engineer who inspected it took money to pass it? We need laws to make people more accountable,” the volunteer said.
In her village of 10,000 people, Rajawat believes some officials are putting up obstacles because they are being bribed to do so and that greater transparency for all aspects of government work would reduce this.
“For those who use wrong means, they would not want a trail of their wrongs online,” Rajawat said.