Friday, March 16, 2012

On Corruption, part II

First part here.

Summary of part I: Seeking an advantage is inherent for survival. Corruption is to seek an advantage which is contrary to rules and laws and is therefore "unfair". Laws can be unfair and provide a rationale for corruption. More and more formalization and computerization can reduce discretion and breaking of rules but also make the system more dis-empowering.


Let's distinguish between two kinds of corruption: illegality, and unfair discretion.

The former is to explicitly break a law or a process of decision making without suffering adverse consequences. Laws and processes are relational. Their breakage usually hurts someone and benefits the criminal. To commit an illegality without suffering adverse consequences is to have gained an unfair advantage.

The latter (unfair discretion) is to exercise discretion in a way which betrays a position of trust and responsibility by hurting the majority of entrusting population.

Discretion in decision-making introduces the possibility of corruption. But discretion cannot be done away with. Everything cannot be easily formalized, nor it should be.

To tackle the latter form of corruption is not easy, and it can only be slowly chipped away at through transparency, public availability of records, and some form of accountability for one's decisions.

It is the former kind of corruption (the willful evasion of rules and laws) which is by far the larger chunk of what we call corruption in India.

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the laws are fair. It is not that easy to create blatantly unfair laws (though unfair laws do exist: gender-biased laws for one example) since the process is generally transparent in democratic societies and the laws must be constitutional.

What makes people follow rules and laws? Obviously, incentives and disincentives. If we want people to follow rules, we must ensure that the law-abiding are rewarded and the law-breakers are punished. Explicit rewards for being law-abiding are usually absent in modern societies. Nobody gets a medal for being a good driver who follows lane discipline or for not taking a bribe. Following the law is an implicit mandate.

The only way therefore to encourage people to follow rules is to have an effective mechanism for punishing the lawless. That is the responsibility of the law-enforcement, the prosecution, and the judiciary. In India, all three institutions are broken in massive ways. It is not my purpose here to go over the ways in which these institutions are broken, but there is broad agreement that they are.

However, there is one aspect of upholding the law which has escaped the notice of all commentators that I have read on this issue.

To create a law is to make a wish for a certain state of affairs. The wish must be financed for it to be effective. Without additional funding to go with each additional law, the law will only further burden an already over-burdened law-enforcement machinery. No wonder more laws are not going to solve India's problems.

Each law creates a burden for its enforcement and adjudication. We should carefully look at the cost of each law and then determine whether the society benefits more with or without that law.


If we assume that the criminal law is a contract between the individual and the state, then upholding of contracts and punishment for breaching them should be paramount on our list of priorities.

The state is mostly a disinterested actor in our courts - in other words, prosecution is lethargic and apathetic - so the failure of criminal adjudication in our country may be somewhat explicable. Let us see if we do any better at promptly correcting breaches of contract where both parties are interested (civil litigation).

In a survey of 183 countries, the rank of India when it comes to enforcing contracts is ... 182. Only Timor-Leste (or East Timor), a war-torn country with a population of just about one million, is behind us.

This is the real, horrific, state of our country, which many people consider the next super-power.

We are a lawless land, and corruption is therefore a way of life in India.

(to be continued)


Anonymous said...

In most countries a law is made with the expectation that the citizens will abide by it. Laws are made to keep maintain the smooth/harmonious/peaceful functioning of the world in other words to work for a common good.
In India disobeying/disregarding laws is a way of life. People just do not understand the meaning of "common good".
This why Indians lack civic sense, have an utter apathy towards alleviating abject poverty, enjoy being corrupt, seek coaching classes to succeed in exams, find shortcuts to success at every step.....

One just does not see such behaviors on such a large scale in any other country in the world.....
As long as Indians fail to understand the concept of "common good" no amount of laws will mak eany difference. The question is do Indians really want to understand it?

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Gandhi's civil disobedience movement has left an indelible mark on the Indian citizens psyche?

Shalender said...

Dear Harman,

Like you mentioned in your post, in India there is hardly any incentive for being a law-abiding person. In fact, being a law-abiding person is seen as a big handicap and such a person gets crushed by everyone - the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the politician, and last but not the least the society itself.

Just to give a small example - as an honest, upright, non-corrupt govt. officer, you must be ready with your transfers all the time. preferably in the middle of kids school session. Your bosses will load with you un-manageable quantity of work so that you dont get time to unearth the corrupt practices going on. and best is to de-moralise you by pulling you up in public, so that you give up mentally.

Secondly, you mentioned discretion and non-accountability as a big facilitator for corruption. You may like to add monopoly to this list.

truly yours,
Shalender Singh Birla

Anonymous said...

The day you see an Indian of his own volition - pick up trash and deposit it correctly in the trash bin, will be the day you see corruption being tackled in India.

No Ashoka or Akbar,No Babar or Aurnagazeb, ,no foreign or domestic rule, no Gandhi or a St Thomas, no Rama or Krishna or no Buddha no Chisti, or a Sai Baba or a Sri Sri has been able to awaken the Indian conscience at a personal level..

And it does not cost a penny to do this...........

Venkat said...

A comment has been made regarding 'common good'. I recently traveled in an AC two-tier train. I expected that at least the berths wouldn't contain trash (though the dust-bin was over-flowing), but almost everyone who had journeyed on my train until my departure station, had dumped their trash on their berth. I do not think that the thought of a fellow traveler was even considered. So much for common good in India.

Anonymous said...

Venkat: your example strikes at the root. The travellers who deposit the trash on the berth feel "My journey is over, I do not have to deal with the trash I leave behind someone else can deal with it - my job is done let me move ahead as quickly as possible".The guys who are paid to remove trash feel "Why should I bother to do that job when my supervisor is not around". And the municipal corporation says "We do not have the money or resources to employ more people or have more trash cans". So that circle of blame goes on. Everyone points to the other, never tries to understand their own role for the "common good". In many other countries when the trash bins are full people carry their personal trash home.

Anonymous said...

Could the reason for leaving trash have to do with the caste system such that the higher castes feel denigrated having to deal with their trash?

Pankaj said...

very interesting article as always. at cursory consideration, "corruption" in india seems to lead to the concentration of gains with those at power centers (major or minor). even if one doesnt have the usual knee jerk reaction towards corruption, it still seems like its detrimental to society.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 8:32 - Maybe the caste system was devised to enforce some kind of order in a population where no one was willing to take responsibility for the unpleasant byproducts one created! But look at how evil that system turned out....

The point is - the root of evils or all things detrimental to society lies within each individual. So conscience has to awakened at a personal level. Otherwise one can make all the laws that one wants, automate as much as one wants - one would only be substituting one form of evil with the other....
WIth all the automation in advanced countries, much of the trash removal is automated - but individuals know that they must be responsible enough to still deposit their trash correctly in the correct bin. Nothing can automate that sense of responsibilty.....