A Hunger Striker Takes on India’s Government

Anna Hazare wins backing for an ambitious anti-graft plan

The Ramlila Maidan park in New Delhi was the setting for a powerful political moment on Aug. 28. There Anna Hazare, a 73-year-old activist and admirer of Gandhi, broke his 13-day fast, drinking a cup of coconut water while thousands of supporters cheered.

Hazare ended his hunger strike after he and his allies had shamed India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh into meeting some of their demands. In an extraordinary weekend session of Parliament, lawmakers pledged to pass a version of an anti-corruption bill championed by Hazare. The legislation will create a graft-busting agency called the Lokpal (Sanskrit for “protector of the people”), with the power to investigate bureaucrats, appoint ombudsmen at the state level, and prepare citizens’ charters that would subject ministries to public scrutiny. “Right now a victim of corruption feels helpless,” says Anupama Jha, executive director at Transparency International India. “This will allow people to reach out to the right authority.”

Hazare profited from the growing public disgust at such scandals as the alleged theft of funds earmarked for the Commonwealth Games (the organizers are awaiting trial) and the suspicious sale of mobile phone permits, a price a government auditor described as “unbelievably low.” The spectrum sale resulted in the arrests of a government minister and major executives.

Such headline-grabbing acts have to be stopped. Yet it’s the petty bribery that infuriates Indians most. India’s gross domestic product growth could approach China’s if corruption were reduced, according to a March survey by consulting firm KPMG of chief executive officers in India. The CEOs said investment from abroad would rise if foreign companies believed the corruption had been licked.

Ordinary citizens have to pay bribes for the smallest government service. New Delhi residents pay an average $23 in bribes for a driver’s license, $25 for a water connection, and $69 for a passport, according to Raghunandan Thoniparambil, founder of ipaidabribe.com, a website where Indians swap stories about their daily encounters with corruption. “I pay a bribe for everything—to buy a house, to get electricity, to get water, to get my son into school,” says Alok Ratnagiri, a 37-year-old accountant who brought his family to the protests at Ramlila Maidan. “This has to stop, or the country is heading nowhere.”

Critics of Hazare point out that the bribes that people like Ratnagiri chafe under are already illegal: All that’s needed is for existing laws to be enforced. From the Central Bureau of Investigation to the Central Vigilance Commission, India has plenty of agencies charged with tackling corruption. The CBI, which is probing the telecom scandal, registered only 731 cases in 2010, down from 1,116 in 1990. On its website, it actually touts the October 2010 conviction of a telephone engineer for soliciting an $11 bribe. Staff shortages and a lack of independence hold the agency back, says Jon Quah, author of Curbing Corruption in Asian Countries: An Impossible Dream?. A request for comment from the CBI was not answered.

The fear is that the Lokpal won’t do much better. “It remains to be seen whether the new Lokpal will be independent, impartial, and effective,” says Quah. And as Hazare reminded his followers during his fast, offering up a bribe is just as common as being forced to pay one. Frustrated with long waits at government offices, Indians hire touts to pay bribes that get their paperwork moving, and they voluntarily fish cash out of their wallets when stopped by a traffic cop who could take away their license. Hazare has made his followers pledge never to offer another bribe. That’s a promise many will be hard-pressed to keep. “Middle-class Indians find it very easy to bribe to get better services,” says Transparency’s Jha. “They don’t bat an eyelid about paying a bribe.”


    The bottom line: India’s newest mass movement against corruption has to prove it can root out the daily graft that plagues ordinary Indians.

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