NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Mahesh Kundu paid $45 for a driving license, Rupam Bhatia $110 to be admitted to hospital and Vishrant Chandra $130 for a marriage certificate. These are the commonplace bribery stories experienced by middle-class Indians who have poured into the streets to say “enough is enough.”
Corruption in India is as old as the Ramayana, when the evil giant Ravana bribed a guardian of hell to avoid punishment in the ancient Indian epic. What is unprecedented is the spontaneous middle-class anti-graft movement coalescing around hunger-fasting activist Anna Hazare, a former army soldier- turned-social activist, who has created an Indian “spring” of rebellion against politics as usual.
Tens of thousands of people have joined peaceful protests across the country, forcing a weak and fumbling government and an equally hapless opposition to try to placate growing frustration and anger at the political class.
“Anna Hazare has raised our inner conscience,” said Vishrant Chandra, a 35-year-old sales manager at Sun Life insurance in New Delhi, who had his own story to tell.
“A marriage certificate cost 6,000 rupees ($130),” said Chandra, smartly dressed and wearing a sticker saying “Anna. We are with you,” as he described his brush with corruption.
“Agents outside the marriage certificate office roam around. Those are the ones you pay,” said Chandra as he wiped sweat from his forehead in the sweltering sun at the Ramlila ground, where Hazare lay on a public stage in the sweltering monsoon heat in the second week of his fast.
India has a long history of civil movements, topped by Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent protest that led to the end of British colonial rule. But this is a rare instance of India’s middle class putting aside their material concerns to take to the streets for a political cause.
The near-double-digit economic growth India has enjoyed since the economy was opened up in the early 1990s has elevated millions of people to the middle class. They have long been apolitical, with many of them shunning the ballot box and forking out bribes to get by, sustaining a system where corruption became an unchallenged way of life.
“What is happening is a collective guilt,” Shekhar Kapur, a critically acclaimed Indian film maker, told CNN-IBN. “Many of those who are coming out haven’t voted or were not of voting age. They realize they have to take charge to change society.”
Can this movement, in other words, transform a deeply embedded culture and make bribery socially unacceptable?
In small discrete ways, it has already begun to do so. A website set up last year to anonymously report bribes, I Paid A Bribe (www.ipaidabribe.com), has received 13,000 reports, most linked to the police.
“When I was departing for U.S. from Mumbai Airport. Customs officer asked me to pay $100 because my wife’s last name was not changed to mine in her passport. I opted to bribe because it was 1 a.m. ... and we were traveling with our new born baby 2 months old,” said one anonymous post on the website dated August 18.
A series of high profile scandals — including the disastrous mismanagement of the Commonwealth Games and the sale of lucrative mobile phone licenses that cost the state possibly $39 billion in lost revenues — appear to be a key tipping point.
Corruption has been worsening in India over the years. Transparency International’s corruption index in 2010 ranked India 87th, level with Albania and below China in 78th place. India was in 84th place in 2009 and 69th a decade ago.
Transparency’s landmark 2005 study of corruption in India found that as many as 62 percent of all citizens have had first-hand experience in paying bribes or using influence peddling to get jobs done in public offices.
“Everywhere you turn in India, from government to schools and hospitals to police, we have to tolerate corruption,” said 49-year-old Rupam K. Bhatia, an optician who closed his business in Mumbai last Friday and turned away patients to attend a protest.
Hazare has given the government a deadline of August 30 to pass draconian anti-corruption laws. The government says it can’t do it that quickly — anti-graft legislation has been in the works for the past 42 years.
“This is just one finger,” Bhatia said, holding up his index finger. “This is five fingers. And this,” he shouted, his face flushing as he clenched his hand, “is the fight! This is individuals coming together to say that for too long we have accepted that corruption is everywhere.”
“Just this April I was in an accident,” he said, holding up his wrist to show two large scars, “and the police and the doctors demanded a bribe of 5,000 rupees ($110) just to allow me to hospital and write up a report.”
Hazare wants the prime minister, judges, ministers, members of parliament and bureaucrats all to come under the scope of a powerful ombudsman. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says such strict laws would undermine parliamentary democracy, and corruption can’t just be waved away “with a magic wand.”
Indeed, Indian bureaucracy is almost a law unto itself, abetted by a lack of accountability, corrupt politicians and greedy businessmen. Part of the problem is the sheer density of India’s regulatory regime, a legacy of British rule which created a ubiquitous bureaucracy to help tame an inherently unruly country.
That is one of the key challenges if this movement is to become a real turning point and not just one of India’s many episodic mutinies.
Santosh Desai, a novelist and chief executive of Future Brands, thinks it can have a lasting impact.
“Regardless of whether one agrees with the Anna Hazare movement or not, it would be difficult to deny that what we are seeing today is something very significant,” he wrote in a column in the Times Of India.
“It does not represent the interests of a regional or narrow social group; although it is led by the middle class, corruption is an issue that affects everybody, particularly the poor. And finally, what we are seeing, perhaps for the first time, is a demand for law-making that comes from people rather than their representatives.”
Corruption has hurt the poor most, and they had the fewest few recourses to fight it. Middlemen have skimmed off chunks of their wages and food subsidies targeted for the poor.
Nearly half of India’s 1.2 billion population depend on farming for their livelihoods. Many them rely on state subsidies and are reluctant to challenge local or federal governments over endemic graft.
That is why the rise of the urban middle class is a more dangerous challenge for the ruling Congress party, which has long relied on the rural poor for votes.
India’s middle class will swell to 267 million people by 2016, from 160 million today, and will account for almost 40 percent of the country’s population after 15 years, according to a report by the National Council for Applied Economic Research.
The number of Indians living in cities will almost double to 590 million by 2030 from 340 million in 2008, according to consulting firm McKinsey, which noted a chronic lack of spending that could lead to a breakdown of urban services. Having to pay bribes to get public services they should get free is helping to fuel the growing public outrage over corruption.
The protesters also express remorse over paying bribes, saying they have been too complacent, too lazy to stand in queues for services and would rather pay someone off or avoid a traffic ticket by paying off the police.
“Yesterday bribery was accepted, today it’s not,” said Sanjeev Sahay, 39, a litigation lawyer at the High Court in Delhi, who took his two small children to the protest.
“You do it because everyone does it. No one likes to give a bribe. Say you need some building permits, if you pay 10,000 rupees ($220) you’ll get it in two days, if you don’t the authorities will slap you with 20 objections and you spend months trying to fight them.”
“The middle class has always had a much higher tolerance because it could pay the bribes. This has now broken. Enough is enough.”
Mahesh Kundu, a 24-year-old software developer in Gurgaon, a fast-growing town outside Delhi, and his colleagues use an office chatroom to discuss how to take part in the Hazare protests without affecting their software project.
“We set up a working shift so we could join Anna and protest while not affecting our work. Our superiors supported us,” he said.
Like many protesters in Delhi, Kundu laments having once paid a middleman $55 to avoid the bureaucratic process of obtaining a driving license.
“I don’t feel good about it. Everyone does this. It’s really as much driven by laziness to get stuff done quickly. We have to start changing this. Set good examples.”
Additional reporting by Henry Foy in Mumbai and Annie Banerji in New Delhi; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Bill Tarrant