Corruption in Asian countries like India is an entrenched feature of popular culture, plaguing every level of society

It was dubbed India’s second freedom struggle. Anna Hazare, a frail but fiery social activist, led a nation-wide anti-corruption campaign that riveted the Indian political class and sent shockwaves through the highest corridors of power. He mobilised the middle class, especially the youth, as thousands poured onto the streets in support of the septuagenarian, who demanded a sweeping anti-corruption legislation to combat political graft. His revolution, which drew worldwide attention, was broader and more intense than any other crusade seen in post-independence India.

But that was more than six months ago. The movement was a symbol of a society in great ferment, but it has since lost much of its momentum; the proposed legislation is far from being passed, and the campaign’s supporters have turned away to focus on other more pressing issues like inflation plaguing the economy.

India’s short-lived revolution has also curiously highlighted how the corruption problem goes far beyond the political class. It is a deeply ingrained cultural neurosis that exists on almost every level of society.

A February 6 survey by the Hindustan Times, a national daily, found that the same youth who chanted mera neta chor hai — “my political leader is a thief” — in support of Hazare’s campaign, later said that corruption is a “necessary evil” in India.

In the survey, which covered over 7,000 people aged 18-25 years across more than a dozen Indian cities, 47% admitted they had willfully paid a bribe. Almost 40% said they would not feel ashamed if they had to pay a bribe.

Further, 46% of those surveyed said that illegal downloading of music or movies from the Internet was ‘normal’ and nearly an equal number said they had purchased pirated software at least once.

In a country blessed with a demographic dividend – more than half of India’s 1.2 billion people are below 25 — the survey, observers say, is a troubling sign of the society’s warped moral mirror.

Software mogul NR Narayana Murthy, one of India’s most celebrated business leaders, recently lamented on a television talk show that Indian youth are seeing “the dishonest become wealthy and powerful, and are thinking this is the way to success”.

But it would be unfair to only blame the youth. Corruption is so deeply entrenched in popular culture that Indians even end up paying bribes for things that are rightfully theirs.

Manvendra Singh, who runs a computer supply firm and participated in one of Hazare’s anti-corruption rallies in New Delhi, says that most government employees receive their pay cheques irrespective of their efficiency or performance, and if you are at their mercy to get any work done “you have to pay” a bribe.

It’s a common perception that it is impossible to be corruption-resistant and do business simultaneously in India.

Observers say the problem is rooted in India’s regulatory apparatus that has not kept pace with the speed of economic liberalisation. Navigating the stagnant bureaucracy and opaque power structures is so frustrating that bribing your way through can often seem like an easier option.

“The system is deliberately made inefficient by those who are in power, so that people who can afford to pay can get their work done quickly but the rest continue to suffer. And with time, the administration becomes run down since rather than devising ways to work efficiently, it is busy thinking of ways to make money by setting up roadblocks to efficient functioning,” Arun Kumar of the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi wrote in his August 2011 op-ed in the Indian news daily The Hindu.

But India is not the only nation in the region fighting the menace.

Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index reveals an alarming level of corruption in the Asia-Pacific region, especially in the public sector.

The index, which covers 183 states and scores countries on a scale from 0, or highly corrupt, to 10, or very clean, declares that the majority of countries in the region score lower than five.

More than a dozen countries in the region score below three – including Vietnam (2.9), Bangladesh (2.7), the Philippines (2.6), Pakistan (2.5) and Papua New Guinea (2.2).

Afghanistan (1.5), Myanmar (1.5) and North Korea (1) rank at the bottom globally.

China and India, the regions two rising giants, are placed 75th and 95th in the world rankings. Both countries could stand to considerably improve their efforts against corruption.

The only bright spots in the region are New Zealand, Singapore and Australia, which all feature in the top ten of the index.

Dev Kar, the lead economist at the Washington-based Global Financial Integrity, a research and advocacy organisation working to curtail illicit financial flows from developing countries, says endemic corruption in the region is hard to stamp out.

A recent study found that “on a conservative basis, total illicit financial flows from Asia increased from US$200 billion in 2000 to US$495 billion in 2008, at a rate of 12.9% per annum,” he told <italics> Asia360 News </italics>.

“Illicit flows from the top five Asian exporters of illicit capital — China, Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, and India — averaged [nearly] 45% of such flows out of all developing countries during the period 2000 to 2008,” he added.

But Kar offered a glimmer of hope.

“Asia’s share of global illicit flows has been declining in the last decade,” he said. “The top five most corrupt countries transferred just 36.9% of illicit flows in 2008, down from 53.3% in 2000.”

Observers say that transparency in governance is the key to prevent embezzlement of public funds and other forms of corruption.

Finland, Denmark, Sweden and New Zealand – which rank high in the corruption index — perform well on that front.

There also seems be a direct correlation between the corruption index and the United Nation’s Human Development Index. All the above countries that rank high in the former also have a high literacy rate, low inequality ratio, and an enviable human right record.

But for most countries in Asia, it is still a long road ahead to a corruption-free future.


Author. Entrepreneur. Filmmaker. Journalist.

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