India Insight

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.

Anger over this reached fever-pitch when thousands of protesters across the country recently took to the streets for days demanding tougher anti-corruption legislation.

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.

VIDEO: Reactions to Anna Hazare’s agitation

Anna Hazare’s fast against corruption united tens of thousands of people across India. The social activist is now recovering from the near-two week fast in his home village of Ralegan Siddhi in Maharashtra. But the government still faces the challenge of passing the Lokpal Bill. Reuters spoke to a few people on the streets to get a sense of what the common man thinks about the anti-corruption debate.

Defining democracy: the challenge on Independence Day

As India celebrates her 65th Independence Day, a potential spat between the government and members of so-called “civil society” raises important questions about the dichotomy in a democracy.

It is a tough balance between giving citizens the right to protest and making sure those protests don’t impinge upon the very rights a democracy guarantees.

Police on Monday denied permission for veteran social activist Anna Hazare to renew a fast to the death in New Delhi. Police say Hazare, who is campaigning for tougher laws against corruption, failed to meet certain conditions to conduct a mass fast.

Graft charges bite as Mayawati eyes polls

By Annie Banerji

While the government of India announced austerity measures in July to rationalise its expenditure in an attempt to meet its fiscal deficit target, the chief minister of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh didn’t seem to get the message.

Mayawati, popularly known as the “untouchables’ queen” for her championing of poor, lower-caste Indians, has spent over $4 million from the state’s contingency fund without budgetary approval on renovation and new construction at her bungalow.

This year, her government will spend more for her house, personal security and comfort.

PM, Sheila Dikshit caught in the eye of another storm

By Annie Banerji

With greying hair, humbly garbed in a sari and a smile that adorns her grandmother-like appearance, 73-year-old Sheila Dikshit finds herself in the spotlight over the Comptroller & Auditor General’s (CAG) report, right after combating the Shunglu Committee report.

The CAG had hauled up the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) for the appointment of Suresh Kalmadi, now in jail, as chairman of the Commonwealth Games Organising Committee in 2004 despite “serious objections” from within the government.

The auditor also held the chief minister of New Delhi culpable for her “active involvement” in causing a loss of almost $6.9 million in wasteful expenditure due to “irregularities”, “favouritism” and “bias” in sanction of contracts for projects in the capital’s beautification process last year.

Is the world’s largest democracy yielding to politicians before its citizens?

By Annie Banerji

One would think India would be able to have a parliament worthy of its name to represent the world’s largest democracy.

But for many civil society activists, who have championed an anti-corruption campaign for months in the wake of government scandals, the Congress party’s ruling coalition is doing its best to water down a potentially game-changing anti-corruption bill which is slated to be brought to parliament during the ongoing monsoon session.

The Jan Lokpal Bill (citizens’ ombudsman bill), propagated by septuagenarian Gandhian social activist Anna Hazare, aims to form an independent, powerful institution to prevent corruption by prosecuting top officials.

Civil society points finger at PM in 2G scandal

By Annie Banerji

He can run, but he definitely cannot hide. The Central Information Commission (CIC) has ordered the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to release information regarding correspondence between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former telecom minister A Raja related to the 2G spectrum allocation scandal, which caused a loss of up to $39 billion to the national exchequer, in response to an applicant under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

The prime minister has seen his popularity slump since he first came to power in 2004 with a downpour of high-profile corruption scandals, paralysed policymaking and a slow paced economy due to high inflation and interest rates. He finds himself under the scrutiny of not only opposition parties, but also civil society.

A civil society movement against corruption headed by popular Gandhian social activist Anna Hazare received nationwide support in April proving to the government that the masses do not treat corruption with nonchalance.

M.F. Husain, Swami Ramdev and the world’s largest democracy

M.F. Husain, India’s most famous modern artist, died at the age of 95 this morning, not in Maharashtra, his home state, nor New Delhi, where many of his ground-breaking works were exhibited, but in London, where he lived in exile with Qatari citizenship. The ‘Picasso of India’ has for five years felt unable to live and work in his country of birth.

Husain fled India in 2006, leaving behind court cases and death threats against him, and continued vandalism of his works from right-wing Hindu groups that accused him of insulting their religion by painting deities in the nude.

Husain, a Muslim, felt unsafe and unable to practice his particular art form in the world’s largest democracy. And he’s not the only one. Salman Rushdie, who was born in Mumbai but lives in the UK, saw New Delhi ban his Satanic Verses for its perceived depiction of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

Look who’s paying a surprise visit

A newly appointed chief minister swoops into government offices, pulls up officers for their tardy work and hammers out orders and suspensions against them. That was the plot of the Bollywood film “Nayak” starring Anil Kapoor.

This is now a reality in Assam and West Bengal, where over the past week, state employees, generally perceived as laidback, corrupt and inefficient, have been shocked by the surprise visits of ministers.

Assam’s education minister Himanta Biswa Sarma visited several directorates under his ministry, carefully examined old files and suspended an employee for being inefficient in Guwahati on Wednesday.