According to an article in The Telegraph, Pakistan is about t0 get our very first Anna Hazare clone. Former Minister Human Rights Ansar Burney is planning to don the latha shalwar kameez and sit on a pedestal as a living shrine to purity in the land of the pure. Actually, Mr Burney is not the first but the second Anna Hazare clone to pop up in Pakistan following the announcement by Raja Jahangir Akhtar that he will observe a hunger strike “till death” unless his demands are met.
The corruption that most directly affects people and that is most often complained about is the petty corruption that demands small bribes. Listen to the stories that people tell about rampant corruption in India and tell me that it does not sound the same as Pakistan.
Vishal is an ordinary man with an ordinary story of corruption in India. He lives in east Delhi, part of the traffic-choked sprawl of India’s capital. He owns a fried chicken takeaway similar to thousands of others that have sprung up in recent years to serve the new tastes of the burgeoning middle class.
And he faces an ordinary Indian daily routine of petty corruption. The number of people Vishal has to pay off is bewildering. There are the local beat constables who take free lunches, and the more senior police officers who can cause problems with opening hours. They take 10,000 rupees (£130) on the 10th of each month to allow Vishal to stay open late.
Then there are the officials from various local authorities who also receive regular payments – around £50 per month – to ensure that health, safety and hygiene inspections go smoothly.
“Of the 40,000 rupees (£520) I earn a month from my restaurant, I pay at least a third in bribes,” Vishal, 26, said. But bribery also extends into his personal life. Vishal has two young children and to get the eldest in to the best local school he paid a “donation” of 25,000 rupees (£340) in cash to the headmaster.
A driving licence needed another bribe. Getting an appointment with a competent public doctor cost a substantial amount. And then there are the traffic police. Every other week Vishal says he is stopped, told he has committed an offence and made to pay 100 rupees (£1.25), the standard fee to avoid “too much bother”.
Beat constables…senior police officers…health and safety officials…driving license officials…doctors office…birth certificate…death certificate…
And there are plenty more that can be added. How many times have I paid a small bribe to help a package be ‘found’ at the post office? Last year my friend Ahmad got tired of hearing one of my late night speeches about how we’ll never end corruption until we stop participating ourselves. My passport needed renewing and Ahmad said, ‘Okay, I challenge you to get your passport renewed without paying any bribe or asking for any favour. 100 per cent corruption free.’ I took him up on this challenge.
The procedure for passport renewal seemed pretty simple. First I had to take a token from the token window, then wait for my number to be called. When my number was called, I was supposed to submit my application, get my fingerprinting done, get my picture taken and finally submit all my documents to an officer before I was done. Renewed passports were usually available after a month to pick up from the same location.
The passport office opened at 9 am the next day. I arrived at 8 am and found the line had been forming since 7 am. No matter, I’m still in the line and it will be moving soon. It was 11 am and I was still standing outside in the line waiting to get a token number before I could even enter the building. Ahmad came by with some other friends and had a laugh. ‘How does it feel in corruption free Pakistan, yaar! Rather hot isn’t it?’
Hours continued to pass. At 2pm, I was still waiting for the clerk to call out my number. Ahmad came back. ‘Come on, let’s go. You proved that you are the holiest man in Pakistan. Here, I know times are hard so I will even pay for you. Come on.’ I refused. Not because I’m the holiest man in Pakistan, though, but because I’m the stubbornest (if that is even possible). I was going to prove a point if I had to bake all day in the sun.
By 5 pm I was done…well, almost. I was told I would have to come back the next day for getting my photo taken and final submission of documents. The officer looked into my eyes and I knew that if I handed him a thousand rupees, I would be done with all this then and there. My wallet began to feel heavy in my pocket. Surely I had proven my point by now? But no. I smiled and said, ‘Yes sir I will be back first thing.’
When I got home I was actually black from being in the sun all day. I was covered in dirt that had mixed with my sweat to form a paste that smeared on my ankles and wrists like marks left by the shackles of my pride. My mother took one look at me and began yelling, but I could barely hear her. I was exhausted.
The next day I went in and got the rest of the things done by the afternoon. Ahmad came by later in the evening and started telling me how lazy he was the entire day. With a smirk on his face he especially emphasized on how he woke up late in the afternoon because he didn’t have anything to do early in the morning.
A month later both of our passports were ready. Ahmad held his passport next to mine, comparing them in detail. ‘I don’t know…Looks the same, yaar. No special seal for piety. If you would have paid 500 rupees to the clerk at the window and 500 to the clerk inside, you would’ve saved all your troubles and be done the same day. For a thousand rupees more, I was out of the place in a matter of hours and was watching “Jab We Met” as you were getting a “perfect tan” outside’. I wasn’t laughing.
The funny thing is, what Ahmad said stuck in my mind. The more I thought about it, I began to realize – this isn’t about corruption at all. It’s about economics. When I showed up at 9 am, there was already a line formed down the street since 7 am. That line never let up all day. There was a lot of DEMAND for passports. But there were only 3 clerks working. That’s not nearly enough SUPPLY to handle everyone quickly.
So, what happens? A new product is offered. ‘Speedy processing’ passport renewal service for only 1,000 Rs. I got my passport without paying any bribes, but it took longer. It’s not that you can’t get anything done without paying, it just takes forever.
And there’s another side to the economics of corruption in society. Why do people send their kids for tuition? It’s because the teachers are not teaching them in the schools. And why aren’t the teachers teaching? Because they don’t get paid enough. So what do they do? They make themselves available after school for tuition. Is it any coincidence that tuition is always paid in cash? Tax free, anyone?
The answer to corruption isn’t an army of megalomaniac Ghandi wannabes, and it isn’t another anti-corruption agency. If you put the President, PM, and all the cabinet in prison, guess what? You will still pay extra to get your passport faster. Do we put every police officer, civil servant, postman, teachers and bureaucrat in prison, too? What about the jailers who take some small bribe to pass along letters and packages to prisoners? Put the jailers in jail!
Does this mean that we should let corruption run free? Of course not. It means that you can hold all the dharnas and hunger strikes and form all the lokpals that you want, but it’s not going to do a thing about corruption unless we grow the economy first. If the government does not have the resources to meet the demands of the people, black markets will fill in the gaps. If people’s salaries are not enough to feed their families, they will naturally turn to other means.
Anna Hazare, Ansar Burney, Jahangir Akhtar and all the other newly minted saints can publicly starve themselves all they want. But the fact is that without the economy of petty corruption, the entire nation would be starving to death. And there’s nothing heroic about that.