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Hunger Strike Over Indian Corruption Sparks Nationwide Rallies

Hazare, dressed in the white cap and tunic of India’s independence movement, today enters the fourth day of a hunger strike on a pavement in central New Delhi. Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg
Hazare, dressed in the white cap and tunic of India’s independence movement, today enters the fourth day of a hunger strike on a pavement in central New Delhi. Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg

April 8 (Bloomberg) -- School children, doctors, Bollywood actors and one of India’s most famous yoga gurus rallied in central New Delhi as support for a hunger strike against corruption by a 71-year-old social activist grew.

Anna Hazare and followers vowed to continue fasting until the government agrees to their demand that civil society should get a lead role in drafting tougher anti-graft laws. Making speeches from a make-shift white tent and singing hymns, his protest, now in its fourth day, harks back to those of his inspiration, Indian freedom icon Mahatma Gandhi.

“People from various walks of life are expressing their frustration with the government,” said lawyer Sanjay Sulhani, 34, who joined the protesters of about 3,000 people at a traditional protest site in the heart of India’s capital. “This will be useful as it puts pressure on the government.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whose former telecommunications minister is awaiting trial on corruption charges linked to the 2008 sale of mobile-phone licenses, has vowed to introduce the so-called Lokpal, or Ombudsman Bill, in the next session of parliament. Critics, including Hazare, say the proposals in their present form lack teeth to punish the guilty.

“They disregard the people’s voice and they claim to be the servants of people,” Hazare, a former soldier, said today as he addressed his supporters. “I will fight till the death.” Television networks are broadcasting his protest live, with counters racking up the hours as they pass.

Singh Cornered

Growing support for Hazare has cornered Singh’s government. Yesterday, the government blinked, agreeing to form a committee of civic activists and government representatives to study the bill’s provisions. The two sides have been unable, though, to solve two remaining disputes: who will chair the panel and the government’s unwillingness to give it official status.

“Our position remains the same,” Telecommunications Minister Kapil Sibal, who held two rounds of talks yesterday with the representatives of Hazare, told reporters in New Delhi.

Investors in Indian shares consider graft as much of a barrier to economic progress as inflation, J.P. Morgan Asset Management said in a December 2010 report. Corruption in India poses a risk to the South Asian nation’s target of lifting economic growth above 9 percent and attracting overseas investment, auditing and consulting company KPMG said in March.

More than a million people have pledged support to Hazare’s campaign, registering their voice with a “missed call” -- dialing and ringing off -- to a phone number listed on the “India Against Corruption” website.

City Protests

Demonstrations and fasts continued in cities including Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad. School children have been taken to see Hazare, who occasionally sips water from a metal cup.

Sonia Gandhi, president of the ruling Congress party, appealed to Hazare to end his fast, assuring him that his views will receive the government’s “full attention.”

“The issues he has raised are of grave public concern,” Gandhi, the widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and no relation to Mahatma Gandhi, said in a statement. “There can be no two views on the urgent necessity of combating graft and corruption in public life.”

Bollywood actor Anupam Kher and director Farah Khan today jointed protesters in New Delhi, as did yoga guru Baba Ramdev, who led chants in Hindi of “Anna Hazare lead the way,” with the crowd responding “we are behind you.”

Corruption Rating

India ranked 87th out of 178 countries in the 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index conducted by Transparency International, sharing that spot with Albania, Liberia and Jamaica.

Singh has had to bat away a barrage of graft allegations after the country’s auditor said second-generation airwaves were sold in 2008 at an “unbelievably low” price that cost the exchequer $32 billion in revenue. Former telecommunications minister Andimuthu Raja is at the center of the probe that includes company executives.

Hazare, whose work in rural development won him some of India’s most prestigious civilian awards, says the ombudsman bill must create the machinery to independently investigate and prosecute any government officer, judge or politician.

“I can see so much injustice in the country, and the government is not doing anything,” Hazare told reporters at the protest site April 6. Since the newly independent country’s constitution came into force in 1950 “no law has been made to put a brake on corruption.”

The draft proposals, which were first introduced to parliament in 1968, have never been passed due to a lack of political will, say activists.

“This law has been pending in parliament for 42 years,” said Arvind Kejriwal, who runs Parivartan, a citizen’s group in New Delhi which works for accountability in governance. “What have they done all these years? You can’t amend that law, you have to replace that law.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Kartikay Mehrotra in New Delhi at kmehrotra2@bloomberg.net; Bibhudatta Pradhan in New Delhi at bpradhan@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Hari Govind at hgovind@bloomberg.net

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