Corruption in our Society and how to come out of it through Participatory Vigilance
Prof. (Dr.) Shanker Dutt
When I received an invitation from Mr. Vijay Sharma and a telephonic prod from Mr. Ujjwal Choudhary to speak at this seminar it was impossible to decline the offer on two counts: one that both these gentlemen have set examples of impeccable integrity in their profession and possess a deep social sensitivity toward the disadvantaged. Both these issues are inextricably connected with the deliberations today. As I mentally juggled with the issue of corruption, I recalled the lexical precision of the political philosopher and orator Edmund Burke. It is indeed a topic on which it is difficult to speak and impossible to be silent. Burke was delivering his famous address on the impeachment of Warren Hastings, his own countryman who had ‘violated’ the ‘eternal laws of justice’. ‘I impeach him’, Burke said, ‘in the name of the people of India whose laws, rights and liberties he has subverted, whose properties he has destroyed, whose country he has laid waste and desolate’. This was a British public figure condemning an imperial representative of the Empire on grounds of injustice in 1787. I believe corruption violates the eternal laws of justice and hence these concerns need to be addressed. I wondered if there had been voices so articulate and strong on corruption in postcolonial India from Indians. When in the territory of morality, Gandhi is often the inalienable point of reference. Sadly, he is remembered grudgingly on the 2nd of October, though often cursed because it is a dry day, and occasionally on the 30th of January, the day the politics of hate silenced him. This is what Gandhi had to say in May 1939 when he heard of the pervasive corruption in six Congress ministries formed under 1935 Act in 1937, ‘I would go to the length of giving the whole Congress a decent burial, rather than put up with the corruption that is rampant.’ Gandhi’ disciples however, ignored his concern over corruption in post-Independence India. Again in 1947, Gandhi wrote in the Hindu: ‘It is the duty of all leading men, whatever their persuasion or party, to safeguard the dignity of India. That dignity can’t be saved if misgovernment and corruption flourish. Misgovernment and corruption always go together. I have it from very trustworthy sources that corruption is increasing in our country. Is everyone then going to think only of himself, and not of all of India?’
I shall come back to Gandhi later.
I must confess I was a trifle uneasy with the phrase ‘participatory vigilance’ large on account of the contexts of its usage. Participatory vigilance requires members of civil society to be alert about any suspicious, unlawful activity and to convey such information to the relevant authorities of the state. The strategy to enlist the support of civil society is to make civil society partners in preempting unlawful activity. My unease comes from two sources. Teaching Foucault for a number of years makes me share with the great French thinker the priority of freedom. He has been concerned with how people are classified and individuals are administered and controlled by a panoptic state. The structural model of the state, the panopticon was forwarded by the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham to ensure the moral health of society. The model envisaged each person be isolated in a small room where they can be observed at all times by a single person in the central tower. The building would be lit around the perimeter so that each person would be seen by the central observer while the inmates could neither see the central observer nor other inmates. An example of such architecture is the cellular jail in Andamans where a number of Indian nationalists were imprisoned. Secondly, images of the panoptic state manifested in the Orwellian image of the Big Brother, a haunting image for the coordinated surveillance apparatus of the state, continues to disturb me four decades after I first read Orwell’s dystopia 1984. The protagonist Winston Smith lives in abject terror of the omniscient gaze of Big Brother and his fellow citizens, combining fear and suspicion. The idea of participatory vigilance also contains the idea of mutual suspicion, whistle-blowing and the notion of otherisation. However if the observer in the first case and the Big Brother in the second were also to be observed by those being observed, I would be much happier. I must confess I am also substantially unclear about what the mechanics of the Participatory Vigilance is likely to be. So what is the solution? Would I advocate doing nothing on an issue that we had begun by describing as being impossible to be silent?
I went back to Gandhi. Just the manner in which Gandhi had sought to find equivalence between capital and labour in his theory of trusteeship, I wonder if it were possible to transpose that idea in the strategy to resist corruption. By the non-violent method, Gandhi sought to invite the capitalist to regard himself as a trustee for workers for the making, the consolidation and the increase of his capital. If the capitalist contributed through the deployment of capital, labor provided work. Interdependent, they were co-sharers of a process for mutual gain. The status of the worker was thus transformed from that of a slave to being a co-sharer. What if we became co-sharers of the development of India? How much of space would the state give to the people and what would be the mechanics of this process?
For a start, I recapitulated many of the young voices we gainfully heard on the 22nd when the Department of Income Tax had organized an excellent debate. The tools of vigilance are by and large sufficient to control corruption it was claimed although it needed to be accompanied by a moral overhaul. We ought to be the change we wish to see in the world.
The process begins with the identification of the causes of corruption. There seem to be some good reasons ought to why corrupt practices have flourished hence the necessity to intervene in these areas and work at a sustained overhaul. In a situation where multiple factors are involved there can be no quick-fix solutions, hence sustained efforts at multiple levels are required. Hence I believe that participatory vigilance merely as an administrative partnership will yield limited results whereas long-term participatory social vigilance is likely to be more effective.
1. The inadequacy of Education, little knowledge of rights. There is a lack of awareness about the effects of corruption. As a result, corruption is not visualized as an injustice. The fight against corruption must begin with education when students have begun to understand how dignity is demeaned by corruption. This is a critical area of partnership.
2. Absence of social security and resultant overcompensations. With inadequate institutional support to cater to core human needs particularly in terms of food, shelter, healthcare and education, there is always the desire to insure against misfortune. Insurance often goes beyond one’s known sources of income. This needs to be addressed with the sincerity of humane policies and good governance.
3. Family attachments : a) School and Institutional demands: capitation fees and parents wanting to live their ambitions through their children (outside village, town or state further enhances corrupt practices) b) Dowry System. Again requiring governmental intervention with social reform.
4. Consumerism and peer pressure to advance cultural value as opposed to use or exchange values.
5. The inversion of moral values where individual worth is measured in material terms supported by the stunning mediocrity of the media that gives precedence to lifestyle and celebrity fluff. Here the media must understand its responsibility and not lend a halo to the unscrupulous. I was appalled to watch a news bite wondering which one of the inmates of Tihar incarcerated for corruption would be the best brand ambassador for the sale of spices packed by prisoners before Diwali.
6. The sheer weight of population that slows down the justice system. Alternative justice systems at the local level could alleviate the problem. Also our system of governance which penalizes a wrongdoing ought to acknowledge an honest citizen and an honest official. Public acknowledgement motivates the good.
7. Dual consciousness: moralizing publicly, practicing the opposite privately. Not walking the talk and the absence of credible role models.
8. Overcoming resigned cynicism and inaction that lets corruption go unchallenged.
9. Among the educated: there is a perceived gap between truthfulness on the part of the government and expedience. Eg. The Planning Commission in its wisdom told the Supreme Court on the 21st of September resulting in a national outcry that the basic requirement for survival is Rs. 32 in urban areas and Rs. 26 in rural areas. It offered Re 1 for healthcare per day insufficient even to cure a simple headache. The reason is obvious. If the truthful figure, closer to Rs 100 were to be acknowledged, many more people would sink below the poverty line and India’s identity as a developing nation will be scrutinized under a glare of suspicion. So if there are covert practices on the part of the government, why should private individuals not fudge a few figures? There is also the belief that the revenue collected from individuals is squandered on wasteful expenses of the privileged and given the tardy implementation, money meant for development schemes hardly achieve their noble objectives.
10. The tendency to refrain from partnering the youth in national objectives. On the contrary there is immense sense in harnessing the energy, idealism and enthusiasm of the youth for positive transformative action. Many a parent will remember that they gave up smoking being prodded by their children. It is for filial love that forms of corruption burgeon and it is for the same reasons that it can be combated effectively.
Hence social vigilance should be a combination of a public sharing of responsibility: one that involves prevention and participatory moral transformation: a trusteeship for a common goal.