September 19, 2020
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Bow Head, Grease Palms

...with folded hands: for the government official is not a service provider but a dispenser of favours. He wants your cash and your dignity. Not just a bribe, but also at all times a tone of deference

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Bow Head, Grease Palms

Recently, I lost my father quite unexpectedly. Consequently, I have had to go from one government office to another to take care of the paperwork that the death of the head of the household brings in its wake. In the process, I am beginning to appreciate more fully the myriad things my father sheltered me from; one of these was contact with the Indian state.

As a political scientist, I have long studied how the Indian state treats its citizens. I have systematically observed citizens belonging to different class and caste categories interacting with government officials and I have conducted detailed interviews with them about their experiences. The only difference this time is that the political is personal.

In India, dealing directly with the state is a coming-of-age moment. It robs one of one’s innocence like nothing else. A wide set of activities, including the acquisition of birth and death certificates, applications for identification documents, and finding a bed in a public hospital, all require interaction with state officials. The discretionary hand of officialdom can either make these processes move swiftly or slowly. Often these interactions involve a demand for ‘speed money,’ or a bribe in cash or kind that will allow the desired activity to proceed smoothly. 

Although this is said to constitute petty corruption, it is ubiquitous. But more importantly, there is nothing petty about the damage it does to the dignity of most citizens who have no choice but to pay these kind of bribes.

That the practice of bribery is a widespread problem in India is a well-known fact. From street conversations to Independence Day addresses to newspaper commentary, the lament is continuous. And why shouldn’t it be? Transparency International, the most well-known tracker of corruption across the globe, found in its 2008 India survey that even Below Poverty Line households paid an astonishing Rs 223 crore in bribes to attain access to a set of basic public services like hospitals, schooling, and water.

Yet what is troubling about bribing in India is not just the demand for the money but also the process through which this demand is made. From the outset of the transaction, the government official involved establishes himself not as a service provider but rather as a dispenser of favours. The message from the official is clear: ‘If you pay me a fee, I will do your work, but do not forget at any point that I am doing you a special favour. Ensure at all times a tone of deference is in use.’

In this sense, bribery robs citizens of not one but two things: cash and dignity. By submitting to an official’s demands and grovelling before him, one is humiliated and loses one’s own self-worth. The transaction is not just about money; it requires the recognition of power. It is essential to acknowledge both aspects of the act of bribery, because without that we fail to grasp fully its corrosive impact on society.

This more complex understanding of bribery also exposes the problems with policy prescriptions aimed at correcting the behaviour of corrupt state officials. We often focus on altering the incentives for corruption among public officials by improving their salaries and perquisites. The logic being that the state bureaucracy is corrupt because its workers are poorly paid. An increase in salary, it is argued, reduces the demand for bribes and subsequently the humiliation of ordinary citizens.

But bribery in India is a two-dimensional phenomenon with strong roots in the principle of hierarchy. The choice to exploit discretionary state power, among other motivations, also reflects the desire of one citizen to exercise authority and control over another. Proposals cantered on economic incentives alone will not eliminate this kind of petty corruption. We must also focus on developing an alternate imagination of self-worth; a notion which is less reliant on the ability to exercise power over others.

I am now beginning to realise that during his lifetime, my father shielded me from these transactions not because he had more money to spend on bribes, but because after retirement he had become used to these forms of robbery. He wanted to protect me from the loss of my dignity. Being an ex-army man, his networks did not run deep into the state. He did not know politicians, bureaucrats, journalists or other interlocutors. For him the encounter with the Indian state — whose sanctity he had great belief in — was mostly unpleasant. Where possible he would turn to touts who could save him the agony. Often, where such a path was not available, he suffered the indignity himself. In the past, every time we were over-charged for an electric or water bill, or some important state-issued document had to be renewed, my father would turn down my offer of help. He would always say, “Do your thing, son, let me do mine.” Today as I take over his mantle, I am beginning to appreciate my father in a new light.

Amit Ahuja is an assistant professor of Political Science at the University of California - Santa Barbara

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