Kautilya sat down to write ‘Arthashastra’, one of the first books of economics in human history, some 2,300 years ago. And he ended up writing a whole chapter on ‘corruption’. He famously said, “Just like it is impossible not to taste a drop of honey that you find at the edge of the tongue, it is impossible for a King’s officer not to eat up a bit of King’s revenue.”
Essentially, it means that even as long ago as in 300 BC, we were rampantly corrupt and as a society, we exploited whatever individual power we had. Kautilya implied that for Indians, the very human nature itself poses corruption. Time and again it was proved in our history. Kingdoms grew or fell through some strategic corruption of individuals who switched sides at a critical time. Even the British India Company walked over this sub-continent and established the rule of Britain over us because we could be corrupted easily, and it was so effortless to divide us and rule.
Transparency International, which places us in the list of nations as a very corrupt society, remarked that over 92% Indians have been exposed to and/or indulged in corruption of either giving or receiving or both at some point in their lives. As a society, we indulge in it as a casual act of convenience. And then, we complain about it, make a fuss and cry wolf.
WHY CAN’T THE GOVERNMENTS ABSOLUTELY WIPE OUT CORRUPTION?
So, whether it is Kautilya’s ‘Arthashastra’ or a review by an international organisation, we have had an indisputable image as a corrupt society that can hardly be changed. In these 2,500 years, we have had several types of governments ruling over us — kingdoms, monarchies, dynasties, Sultanats,foreign colonisation, and democracies. There have been benevolent rulers, autocratic usurpers, people’s leaders, men of the sword, and religious oppressors, you name it and we have had it. But how come any form of government or system of rule could not bring down corruption through force, legislation, counselling, or any other means for thousands of years? Haven’t we punished people enough? Well, the country has historically practised capital punishment, dismemberment of limbs, jailing, public humiliation, seizing of property, and all kinds of punishment for corruption over centuries and millennia. Yet, as a society, we are as corrupt as we have been for thousands of years.
This essentially means that it is not the government or the law which is weak and unimaginative in bringing down corruption. It is just that as people, we are too strong and imaginative to remain corrupt by all means. The people perpetuate corruption as a means of convenience. And morally, we do not attach shame or guilt to being corrupt. Corruption is our blood trait. Corruption is more of people’s character in definition than being social malice that the governance can totally get rid of. What has stayed so for years shall remain the same in the coming years, unless we change at an individual level.
During these testing times, when a selfless and sincere approach was needed to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, this trait of corruption ruled the roost. A grocery shop owner fleeced customers citing short supply. A pharmacist hoarded life-saving medicines. A piece of basic equipment like a pulse oximeter suddenly disappeared from stores and if available, was sold at a much higher price. Black marketing of oxygen cylinders wreaked havoc on several families in dire need of oxygen. Even a taxi driver charged hefty sums from passengers. This shows that we can exploit any opportunity for money or material. And by stooping this low, we have also defeated all the good works of a large section of people during these difficult times. Individuals, organisations, even political parties, in their own capacities, have been providing free food, medicines, ambulances, oxygen, and all possible support to the needy but they were easily eclipsed by the rampant corruption surrounding us.
In the Covid era, we have seen that corruption has reached the zenith. It is not exaggerating to say that during the times of the pandemic, we have ‘corona’ated corruption and installed it on the throne. Corruption thrives at the juncture of power. And power need not be political or administrative or of any high order. And if the opportunity is critical, rendering the other one helpless, distressed, and weak in some manner, it is all the more easier to exploit the situation. And coronavirus pandemic has become a golden goose of benefit for the heartless, unscrupulous, and ruthless.
People of all stature — from the rich and resourceful to the ones struggling to meet their ends — had to fight this corruption alongside fighting the deadly virus. It was widely reported that once you reach the hospitals, in the hope of some relief and cure, corruption widened its wings. Finding a hospital bed for the patient proved to be a Herculean task and in several cases, the hospital beds were hoarded by unscrupulous agents in connivance with the hospitals. Negotiating for an ambulance to take the critical patients to came as another shocker. News reports of ambulance operators charging Rs 20,000 to Rs 40,000 for ferrying patients to short distances of a few kilometres describe this moral corruption in the most absolute terms.
In our country, where total private infrastructure accounts for nearly 62% of all of India’s health infrastructure, it is easier for corruption to thrive at every level of the system. Medical staff were found refilling empty Remdesivir bottles with fake drugs and selling them to patients not only at a premium but also risking their lives, remorselessly. Patients and their families were cheated with fire extinguishers in the name of oxygen cylinders just when they needed oxygen to save the lives of their loved ones.
These instances are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The deep-rooted corruption at the health services goes up to kickbacks given to the health workers to please them and secure better services, thefts of medical instruments and medicines from the hospitals that are sold at a premium outside the hospitals. This ethical and moral bankruptcy have even driven them to the extent of recycling and selling bio-medical wastes like used face masks, PPE kits, and gloves for the sake of a few pennies. Hospitals were also found charging exorbitant fees from Covid patients.
And if one thought this face-off with corruption would end here, a rude shock awaited. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, who would have ever thought of corruption in the cremation grounds. Families of the deceased were charged up to Rs 25,000 to Rs 30,000 for cremating the bodies that used to be a matter of less than Rs 5,000 on normal days. The cost of woods and ghee spiralled through the sky as bodies queued up at crematoriums.
I began this article by saying that corruption is a blood trait of people. There is very little that anyone can do to remove evil from our surroundings if people act beyond the sanctity of morality. A thing that was never effectively curtailed for centuries will only increase and occupy the centre stage of our lives when people patronise it, benefit from it, and silently subscribe to it.
The present government under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has effectively shown how a system can be run without corruption. Having served for 20 years as head of the governments — in Gujarat and then at the Centre — without even a charge of corruption, PM Modi has an impeccable, clean character to inspire our generation to adopt honesty as their way of life. Unfortunately, even the high degree of honesty and morality of our Prime Minister failed to influence our society and proved that corruption was indeed our blood trait.
Governments can only help people’s will to change. But if they don’t want to change, there is no power with anyone anywhere to pull us out of the intricate mess that we have created for ourselves. Let us pledge not to exploit humanity with greed.
The writer is Chairman, Khadi & Village Industries Commission, Government of India. The views expressed are personal.
Corruption thrives at the juncture of power. And power need not be political or administrative or of any high order. And if the opportunity is critical, rendering the other one helpless, distressed, and weak in some manner, it is all the more easier to exploit the situation. And the coronavirus pandemic has become a golden goose of benefit for the heartless, unscrupulous, and ruthless. People of all stature—from the rich and resourceful to the ones struggling to meet their ends—had to fight this corruption alongside fighting the deadly virus.