Home > Uncategorized > The panopticon is not a solution to corruption

The panopticon is not a solution to corruption



The Lokpal Bill (Ombudsman Bill) is being debated in the House as I write this. One is not sure if it will pass in its present form, described as lame by Anna Hazare acolytes, or in its strong form, which in my humble view would ultimately turn Indian democracy into a police state. Be that as it may, it is by now clear that team Anna has neither a clear understanding of corruption nor how the scourge can be diminished if not eradicated. Their zeal to fight corruption may be well intentioned but Anna’s preferred solution of policing corruption through a strong Lokpal is neither practical nor desirable if we are to remain a democracy. Consider.


Corruption does not occur in a vacuum. Barring the purely criminal act, corruption always occurs in an economic context and it is necessary to understand this economic context in order to minimise the scope for corruption. Consider robbery. To minimise theft it makes no sense to leave your belongings unlocked while raising a huge police force to watch over them. It is far better to insist that people take due care of their belongings and have a small police force to catch actual thieves post facto to deter others from breaking the law. So is the case for corruption. Our first order of business should be to minimise the scope for corruption. Catching violators then becomes far easier. Prevention, as they say, is better than cure. Distrust of government, the propensity to avoid taxes and to see them as unjustified extortion, concealment of wealth, preference for gold, etc, are all manifestations of defensive mechanisms against a predatory government deeply embedded in our culture for centuries. They have their roots in unstable governments, exposure to wars and invasions, and rule by alien, largely illegitimate, governments whether native, Muslim or British. Indian exposure to self-government is barely 65-years-old, a mere wink in a millennium, while practices that shape behaviour for survival take generations to change even with the right sort of education. It is naïve to expect that all the deeply ingrained attitudes changed with independence. We have come a long way but there is a long way to go too. Our easy social acceptance of corruption, and the corrupt, comes as part of our historical baggage. To be corrupt is merely being smart and not criminal. If you have any doubt on that score find out which groom of a ‘well settled’ but corrupt family was ever denied a bride for corruption. Our battle for corruption begins in this cultural milieu, which in our hypocrisy we overlook. We are corrupt partly because corruption is not a crime unless you get caught.


Corruption in India is pervasive. It is most obvious in the government and public sector because our Fabian socialism handed over large swathes of the economy to the government owing to lack of trust in private enterprise. Government babus then converted these enterprises into near monopolies and proceeded to use their assets as instruments for extracting rents from the consumers for private profit. This is the most common form of corruption. You see it in the Railways, ration shops, allocation of scarce raw materials, fertilisers, power, utilities, etc. It is best handled by breaking up monopolies, introducing fair competition through privatisation and ensuring that the demand supply gap deliberately created by the government servants to extract rents is eliminated. As the case of roaming after 3G auctions shows, the government servants are actively looking to create opportunities for rent seeking using obscure rules and ‘public good’ as an excuse. For sheer economic efficiency, public welfare and growth, this form of corruption is best tackled through economic reforms. Creating an army of cops to police everybody in these enterprises is silly, wasteful, and expensive and will not solve the basic problem of growth in demand that creates shortages. That is one reason why the so-called solution proposed by Team Anna is so silly and undesirable. Recall there used to be humongous corruption in the allocation of cars! Was the solution a police force over car manufacturers or opening up the sector to new players and competition? The case for reforms and liberalisation is so obvious that any contrary policing solution appears ludicrous. One is amazed that Team Anna was not laughed out of court.


Two other sources of corruption involve sale of resources whose ownership vests in the government, and, illegal gratification that the government servants demand in purchase of goods and services on behalf of the government. The first includes things like the sale of the spectrum and the second procurement of things like food grains, etc. Lack of transparency in processes and procedures, and adoption of intricate normative criteria in sale and purchase of goods and services are the two main reasons for such corruption. Ruthless adoption of open auctions as the only valid method in sale and purchase of services would eliminate such corruption altogether. Where the government needs to pass a certain benefit, say the small scale industry, it must find another method to give out such subsidy rather than clubbing it with non-transparent price preference. You do not need a police force to eliminate such corruption. All you need is a clear head, a stout heart and a clean conscience. Bells and whistles added on to open auctions are nothing but an invitation to corruption. They are best avoided ab initio. Lastly, there is corruption where gratification is demanded to change an administrative decision, be that to conceal crime, jump a promotion queue, seek an administrative favour, etc. This form of corruption is the kind that cannot be addressed through economic reforms and the only way to deal with it is through policing. Open, easily accessible forms of redressal mechanism and ombudsmen are required to check such corruption. It would have been great if Team Anna had decided to focus entirely on such corruption and to devise the best way to fight it. Instead, it chose to cover all sorts of things that are best addressed through economic reforms rather than policing through an omniscient police force whose cost would far exceed any potential benefit to the people.


What was surprising about Team Anna’s campaign was the skimpy homework and thought that had gone into its proposals. What was really disturbing though was the overwhelming response that the campaign gathered from India’s upwardly mobile middle class. While their rage at the series of corruption scandals was understandable, their conflation of corruption with liberalisation was naïve and dangerous. The little reforms that India has had so far have vastly reduced the scope for corruption and not added to it. If the middle class betrays such poor understanding of corruption, reforms and liberalisation, what hope for change is there for India? While corruption needs to be addressed, the more vital task is to educate and inform our middle class on reforms and their role in reducing the scope for corruption. Else we will end up putting the cart before the horse.


What a pity that the enormous political capital that Team Anna enjoyed could not be used in reducing the scope for corruption through economic reforms for want of the right ideas. When will we lay the ghost of a draconian solution to rest in our polity where an authoritarian police solution to an economic problem is the default answer?


The writer is a trader. She can be reached at sonali.ranade@hotmail.com or @SonaliRanade on Twitter

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. wanderer
    December 27, 2011 at 6:26 am

    and how is having a strong Lokpal going to hinder in reaching the utopia outlined above??

  2. December 29, 2011 at 8:07 am

    This is a great post. May I request you to consider joining FTI ttp://freedomteam.in/blog/main
    India require a strong liberal market friendly party. Also India requires the right people to act rather than complain. If right people don’t act then people like Anna, Ramdev, Rahul take center stage.

    I would also request you to read the book http://bfn.sabhlokcity.com. This tells how we can really fix India.

  3. ravi
    December 29, 2011 at 5:38 pm

    The problem is that the govt holds so much power.Govt should have only basic powers such as making sure laws are enacted etc. Most of the economic activity should be privatised. I agree lokpal would not do anything. People respond to incentives.

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