PUDUCHERRY, India—The lights went out at a school for needy children in the south-Indian coastal city of Puducherry. The teacher didn’t pay the electricity bribe.
The morally uncompromising teacher, who wishes to remain anonymous and whom we will call Archana, refused to bribe officials in the state government department that handles the power supply.
Power surges through the homes of those surrounding the school, those who were willing to pay bribes—the vast majority. This is how things work in India: power runs on bribes.
The current of the “India Against Corruption” movement coursed through the nation with increasing force throughout 2012, galvanizing mass protests. While the movement, started by activist Anna Hazare, has succeeded in spurring widespread debate on law and policy change, business continues as usual with Indians silently, or angrily, succumbing everyday to the pressures of a corrupt system.
“We are functioning on a generator set,” Archana said. “I sometimes wonder for how long I will be able to stick to the principles. Since I’m building a new building for the school, I’m looking for alternate sources of energy so that I don’t have to pay bribes to the electricity department.”
Archana’s charitable organization must account for every penny, yet she meets with bribe demands around every corner. When she wanted to apply for federal government funds for the school, officials demanded 10 percent of the amount she got as their share.
“This means if I ask for 600,000 rupees (US$10,910) I have to pay 60,000 [US$1,091] as bribe,” she said.
“It’s an issue of public attitude in India,” Archana said. “Corruption exists because we don’t behave like normal citizens. We don’t want to stand in a queue and wait for our turn in government offices and public service offices; we make our way easy by bribing corrupt officials and make the system more corrupt.”
Archana is not alone in her plight. Almost everyone in the country has a story to share about either being forced to bribe, willingly bribing to skirt around regulations, or resisting corruption by refusing to bribe.
Sampad, a Sanskrit scholar in the eastern state of Orissa who did not wish to give his full name, tells how teachers in his village are plagued by the corruption of education department officials.
“For all these years many teachers employed in government schools are extremely frustrated because they are forced to pay a substantial amount of their salary as bribe to the education officials,” Sampad said. If a teacher doesn’t pay up, Sampad said, officials create a fake statement saying the teacher has already been paid his or her salary without actually depositing it.
“They thus comply with the wishes of the corrupt officers.”
Though corruption is widespread, it is still hidden and certainly not flaunted. Gopika Mahesh, an engineering student in Bangalore, tells of an incident at her university, which was hushed to preserve the school’s reputation.
“My friend did not study well for Maths exams,” Mahesh said. “He bribed 2,000 rupees to the teacher and got the exam question paper. But, he failed because the question paper changed at the last moment. He then paid 10,000 rupees bribe to the same teacher to pass the exam. There were 68 students in the university who had done the same.”
She says the teacher was terminated and the students had to rewrite the exam, but news of the incident did not reach the public. Mahesh requested that the name of the university not be published, so as to not draw trouble to herself. A high-level official at the university confirmed the account, but wished to remain anonymous.
Many Indian people have become accustomed to bribing, and the prevailing attitude is that greasing palms—just a little bit of corruption—is not bad, as long as people get what they want.
Swati Ramanathan, co-founder of the Janaagraha Center for Citizenship and Democracy, said, “Corruption results in the corrosion of ethics and values in an entire society, and ripples across all aspects of our daily lives.”
Ramanathan said that it is not enough to express outrage at corruption in the higher echelons of political power—it is time to admit that many Indian citizens have added fuel to the flame and are equally to blame.
Janaagraha works to empower Indian citizens by creating a network for confessing, sharing, resisting, and ultimately changing the system. The center has headed a number of initiatives, including establishing the website IPaidABribe.com.
While many activists and policy analysts in India are talking about reforming the system, and corruption is likely to surface as the major issue in this year’s federal election campaigns, Ramanathan and Archana say change will begin when Indian people refuse corruption in their daily lives.
With reporting by Sunaina Valecha in Bangalore, India.