One Man, One Bribe

Craig Jeffrey · Corruption in Uttar Pradesh

It emerged recently that tens of millions of dollars meant for the poor in Delhi are being siphoned off to pay for the Commonwealth Games. At the same time, the city authorities are forcibly destroying the homes of squatters to make way for the games. It's a depressingly familiar story. Rajiv Gandhi famously said that of every hundred rupees ear-marked by the state for the alleviation of poverty in rural India, about six rupees actually arrive in the hands of a poor person – the rest is embezzled by intermediaries. Forced evictions, too, have a long history in metropolitan India.

There's a joke doing the rounds in the city of Meerut in Uttar Pradesh, forty miles from Delhi. A man decides to visit a new anti-corruption officer for the district. On arriving at the government building he meets the officer’s secretary. The man asks to see the anti-corruption officer. 'I'm afraid he's not in today,' the secretary replies. 'But I can the light on inside his office,' the man says. 'I may be able to let you see him, if you give me 50 rupees.' The man eventually pays the money and storms into the office: 'Did you know that your own secretary is taking bribes?!' The anti-corruption officer opens his hands and says: 'Brother, what to do? Even I had to pay 50 rupees to get into my office this morning.'

Uttar Pradesh is notoriously corrupt. The auditor general’s reports for the state paint a dismal picture: of widespread embezzlement of public funds by government bureaucrats, of police abusing their powers, of development money going astray. The intended beneficiaries of major development projects rarely get the resources they are entitled to. The police, teachers, doctors and public officials routinely ask for cash for services which are supposed to be paid for by the state and provided free of charge.

The structure of government in Uttar Pradesh encourages corruption. As Salman Rushdie once joked, ‘Indian democracy: one man, one bribe.’ Politicians spend a lot of money getting elected, and recoup it from top officials in different government bureaucracies. These officials, in turn, put pressure on those lower down the bureaucratic pyramid. But corruption in Uttar Pradesh is not only a state problem. University students with influence in the educational bureaucracy have unofficial power over undergraduate admissions and teaching jobs, and act as go-betweens in negotiations between building contractors and university vice-chancellors. Among low castes, a set of brokers has emerged who help people get state assistance. ‘How can we help the poor if we do not pay bribes and play the game?’ they say.

There is however evidence of some popular mobilisation against corruption. In Meerut I worked with a lot of young people who periodically come together to protest against state malpractice. They are embroiled to different degrees in the system of corruption, but say that they have a collective long-term interest in ‘changing India’. There have even been successful social movements in some parts of northern India – notably in Rajasthan – to hold local elites and government officials to account. Reducing malpractice will require political effort on multiple fronts. People on the ground are mobilising against the worst forms of fraud. Centralised efforts to limit spending on elections would help a great deal. But for the time being, the type of gross malpractice recently uncovered in the management of the Commonwealth Games remains part of a general story of Indian malfeasance.