Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Cost of Corruption: how the case against SPS Rathore affects us all

My wife has been getting tired of hearing me talk to people about the same old things: peak oil, climate change, the Commonwealth Games.  So last month I started working on new topics of conversation, like corruption. I've spoken to a lot of people: university students and autowallas; a poet or two; a crime reporter, a business reporter; a gun dealer, a low-level police bureaucrat, a book dealer, and many more.  So far, everyone agrees corruption is a problem. (Most say it's a "very big problem"; the police bureaucrat says it's "a problem, but not as bad as you think."  He stuck to this position, by the way, even after a few strong drinks, and I had to respect him for that.) 

But I've not found anyone who can offer a really good solution for the problem.  Most just shrug their shoulders, throw up their hands.

I agree corruption is a problem.  I think it is part of the reason people tend to feel hopeless about the prospects for real change in India.  And I think that hopelessness holds back our movements for justice and sustainable development.

Here's another conclusion I've reached: not all corruption is equal. Obviously, the politician who accepts huge bribes when awarding contracts for unsafe or unneeded work is worse than the fellow at the power company who demand a little extra to get the name on your bill changed. Influence selling by politicians is not just annoying; it undermines our faith in our democratic institutions-- it is a particularly poisonous sort of theft. We need fast track courts when these kind of allegations come up, and politicians who are found guilty of this kind of behavior belong in prison for a very long time.  That's called a deterrent: it's to send a message fair play and honesty aren't just right, they are smart!

There is another category of particularly poisonous corruption: abuse of power by those we depend on to care for us and protect us.  When teachers or police use the trust we put in them to abuse or harm the most vulnerable among us, this undermines our faith in the system every bit as much as the politicians who get rich off of public money.  These crimes also call for swift and strict justice.  Swift, because justice delayed is too often justice denied.  Strict, because a slap on the wrist will not deter others.

When the  Inspector General of Police of an Indian state molests a girl and then harasses her and her family in order to escape justice, I don't think 6 months in jail, loss of his police medals and a 1000 rupee fine qualifies as strict. And a nineteen year wait is far, far too long to qualify as swift, especially when the victim commits suicide after three years.  If you live in India and read the papers, you have heard of SPS Rathore and Ruchika Girhotra.  If you don't, you can learn more at the Indian Homemaker.  Or Goolge.

If Mr. Rathore is convicted of the charges currently filed against him, the term of his sentence should probably be measured in decades, not months.  Since "following orders" should never be an excuse for criminal activity (didn't we learn this in the war crime trials after WWII?), Rathore's subordinates should also be investigated since it appears some of them also participated in the harassment campaign against this family.  If convicted, they should, at minimum, lose their pensions and be relieved of duty. If school officials are found to have participated in harassing Ruchika, her brother, or their family, those officials and the school should be severely punished.  

Corruption is widespread.  High profile cases alone will never stop it, of course.  But high profile cases can make a difference if they result in real justice being done: many high-level corrupt officials are cowards; an example that includes a long prison term may make them think twice! And if low-level officials realize they can be punished for following illegal orders, some of them may decide to stand up next time and say no. 

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  1. I agree that all corruption isn't equal. While in the US (where I've been for a year), low level corruption such as the first kind you mentioned is virtually non existent, high level corruption takes place on a grand scale (much much more than in India) via lobbying and campaign contributions.

    But I get the feeling that things are improving for India. Some important steps such as increasing the courts, digitizing records etc are being taken. True, we can't see a drastic improvement overnight, but from what I see, things are surely improving. Education is improving too - meaning that people will know their rights and demand justice. The bureaucracy is changing too with stricter performance appraisals and fines for sitting on files.

    And with more and more governmental services going online, the scope for corruption decreases further. So while we do have a lot of corruption, the problem is being addressed and that feels good.

  2. @Bhagwad, Interesting points. I think you are right; some improvement is there. Part of the difficulty with illegal things is that they are hard to quantify: it's impossible to sort out the "stories" we tell from the overall reality.

  3. One more thing about the Rathore case. I understand the abetment to suicide charge. But it seems wrong that real justice would depend on that charge. Is harassment, molestation and gross abuse of power not enough? Does someone have to kill themselves to be taken seriously? Now THAT is a terrifying idea.

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What do you think?