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.