I Paid a Bribe, and tweeted about it

A few months ago, the Global Corruption Barometer 2013 by Transparency International (TI) told us that 47% of India thinks corruption is a serious problem in our public sector, and 68% feels the government is ineffective against it, with most corruption perceived to exist in political parties (86%), police (75%) and parliament/legislature (65%). As evident, most Indians are perturbed by the presence of corrupt practices thriving in all nooks and crannies of the public machinery.

And not only is corruption rampant in India, but it’s also remarkably visible and lacking in subtleness. In fact, for most Indians, corruption has always been a way of life. To think about it, I ended up paying a bribe no less than four times last week itself, and had to disperse massive amounts in cash to bureaucrats and their peons a couple of years ago just to make sure that my new business registration does not get stuck indefinitely for no discernible reason. And I am hardly alone: A 2005 study by TI found that more than 62% of Indians had a first-hand experience of paying bribes or influence peddling to get jobs done in public offices successfully.

Image courtesy: Mint

According to some estimates, India has lost a staggering US$ 462 billion in illicit financial flows since gaining independence in 1947, and the economic burden of corruption in the last decade is estimated at INR 1,555 thousand crore ($250 billion).

Corruption can thus be considered a massive obstacle in India’s journey from a developing to a developed nation. It’s also clear that the average Indian is thoroughly aware and conscious of it, and regularly vents his/her anger via protests and processions. However, a lack of informed debate about corruption and its root causes leads to nothing beyond momentary attention. The possibility of addressing this monstrosity through feasible systemic reforms has been pushed into a blind spot by the media’s silence and our collective complacency.

When citizens face corruption at every step in their daily lives, it cultivates passive acceptance as a survival strategy. Instead of demanding public services as an entitlement, they look upon them as favours. In 2010, Janaagraha, a civil society organisation based in Bangalore, responded by launching ipaidabribe.com with the intent of tracking the market price of corruption. Today, the portal invites citizens to share their experiences of giving bribes, as well as anecdotes about avoiding paying bribes.

I Paid a Bribe

A screenshot of ipaidabribe.com

With more than 23,000 reports to date, ipaidabribe.com is among the largest repository of bribe reports worldwide, collecting data regarding the nature, number, pattern, types, locations, and frequency of actual corrupt acts and values of bribes across hundreds of cities and town in India. Thus, Janaagraha raises a public outcry but in a complete and informed manner, promoting a purposive public debate that pressurises public officials to address corruption through constructive reforms. It not only helps citizens recognize, avoid and tackle corruption in daily life, but also analyses the data to understand the taxonomy of corruption in different areas and then uses that knowledge to work with the government and bring about systemic reform directed at entrenching simpler and more transparent processes, more consistent standards of law enforcement and better vigilance and regulation.

The otherwise closed and conservative government of India now seems to be opening up to new media interventions as well, as evidenced from a statement by Arun Jha, the additional secretary for the Department of Administrative Reforms & Public Grievances, at the 33rd Skoch Governance Summit in New Delhi (Sept 2013):

“I think social media would make a radical shift in governance by enabling citizen consultation. In that way, it can result in a tectonic shift in how policies are made. So far, we have had limitations in gathering feedback from the general public. Social media can bring greater accountability and have everlasting effect on policy debates.”

Social media can thus be a strong tool to enable reforms via collaboration, participation, and empowerment, though India’s digital divide also means that the social media landscape is heavily skewed towards the urban middle-class and the rich. Then again, the rapidly improving penetration of mobile phones and internet access may change these numbers sooner than you may think.

Social media is an opportunity provided by the internet to engender collective action towards empowering democracy and initiating constructive reform, even if it has to start from a cat video. You may tweet that if you like.

“I Paid a Bribe, and tweeted about it” was adjudged among the winners of the annual essay competition (or rather, the Blog Competition 2013) organised by the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) and sponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy. The piece shall be published in CIPE’s “Economic Reform Feature Service” later this year, and it can also be read on my NewsYaps column.