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The poor pay bribes of over Rs 8,000 million to access public services

By Deepti Priya Mehrotra

A study on corruption across India reveals that approximately 50 million BPL households paid as much as Rs 8,830 million in bribes in one year to access 11 selected public services. Highest on the corruption list is the police

The benefits of planned economic growth are supposed, at some point of time, to reach the poor. Despite 60 years of independence, not only has this 'trickle down' failed to materialise, there actually seems to be a 'trickle up': bribes paid by the poorest households to government functionaries for accessing public services. While corruption exists in all strata, it hurts the most when it affects those already living on the brink.

A recent study, designed and conducted by the Centre for Media Studies (CMS) in collaboration with Transparency International India (TII), reveals that the approximately 50 million BPL (below the poverty line) households in India paid as much as Rs 8,830 million in bribes, within one year, to access 11 selected public services. This colossal amount, extracted from the poor, indicates a ruthless cynicism at work within the innards of the State.

The stranglehold of corruption exists across all 31 states and union territories of India. The TII-CMS India Corruption Study-2007 found that in order to avail of the 11 public services studied, approximately one-third of the total number of BPL households had to pay bribes.

The worst service, in terms of corruption, turns out to be the police. This is hardly surprising, yet it does provide occasion to pause and question the credibility of a law-and-order system that harasses the most powerless and vulnerable. Across the country, around 10% (5.6 million) BPL households interacted with the police during one year; of them, 2.5 million had to pay bribes to police functionaries. The total amount in bribes paid by these households to police personnel is estimated to be a whopping Rs 2,148.2 million. Around half of the households had no option but to pay a bribe at the very first step -- the point of registering their complaint.

Six of the 11 public services covered in the study are 'need-based' -- police, banking, housing, forests, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), and land records/registration. The rest are 'basic services' -- the Public Distribution System (PDS), health, school education, electricity, and water supply. The 11 services can be ranked as follows, in terms of their corruption count: police (1), land records/registration (2), housing (3), water supply (4), NREGS (5), forests (6), electricity (7), health (8), PDS (9), banking (10), and school education (11). Need-based services, being monopolistic and/or involving asset-creation, rank relatively high on the corruption scale compared to basic services.

Land records/registration and housing emerged as the most corrupt service, after the police. At issue is people's fundamental right to shelter and livelihood. Nearly 18% of BPL households interacted with the land records/registration department, of which one-tenth reported paying a bribe, amounting to an estimated Rs 1,234 million. Nearly one-fourth of bribes were extracted simply for the provision of land records. Over half of the households visited the concerned offices three or more times to access routine services.

Alok Srivastava, Research Director, CMS, notes: "The government claims computerisation of land records helps reduce corruption -- but our study disproves this." As regards housing, 78% of BPL households that interacted with the housing department experienced difficulties; one out of two said 'corrupt staff' was the main source of their difficulties. With two out of every five (a total of approximately 1.5 million) households paying a bribe or using contacts to avail of housing services, an estimated Rs 1,566 million was pocketed, largely by departmental staff. Around 45% of households found corruption had increased during the past year.

To avail of water supply, an essential service, BPL households paid Rs 239 million in bribes. Occasions for bribery were installation/maintenance of handpumps, meter installation, pipe repair, supply of irrigation water, etc. The NREGS, a scheme meant to provide relief to households suffering chronic unemployment, has become another site for harassment. Around 0.96 million rural BPL households paid bribes to avail of NREGS benefits, to the tune of Rs 71.5 million in the course of one year! Around 47% of rural BPL households that interacted with the NREGS found officials/staff corrupt. Half the households that paid bribes did so to get registered for work under the scheme.

Around 20% of BPL households interacted with the forest services. These largely tribal households, whose livelihoods depend on the forests, paid bribes to the tune of Rs 240 million, in one year, to obtain permission to collect fuel wood and gather saplings, etc. Most paid bribes directly to the concerned staff and officials.

In a country where food security is still a pipedream and millions suffer from malnutrition, health and PDS department personnel have not spared people. Health services interfaced with four-fifth of BPL households, of whom over half faced difficulties and 15% paid bribes or used contacts. Another 2% were denied health services because they could not pay a bribe. Around Rs 87.0 million was paid in bribes during the course of a year. However, nearly one-fourth of households felt that grievance redressal mechanisms were improving. As for the PDS, more than half of the 47.23 million households that interacted with service-providers had no doubt that corruption existed in the department. Around one-third felt corruption had increased during the year. Around 10% paid bribes or used a contact -- the majority to get a new ration card or take home their quota of rations. Three out of four households that paid bribes did so directly to the concerned staff/officials. Bribes were paid to the tune of Rs 458 million.

Expansion of school education is being promoted with much fanfare, yet some 3.1% BPL households reported paying bribes -- the majority for new admissions, issuance of certificates, and promotions. The amount paid in bribes is estimated at Rs 120 million. Srivastava says: "The major share is in the higher classes -- Classes 9 to 12. Most bribes were demanded by school officials or staff, and were paid directly to them." One can only wonder about the kind of 'education' being imparted by adults themselves mired in corruption.

Dr N Bhaskara Rao, Chairperson, CMS, says that previous CMS studies on corruption (2003 and 2005) showed that corruption involving citizens had declined, albeit marginally, in certain public services. This improvement may be partly due to specific measures like the Right to Information (RTI) Act, citizens' charters, and social audit. Yet, levels of corruption remain unacceptably high, particularly in the context of BPL households. The ultimate proof of 'inclusive growth' would be to ensure that basic services actually accrue to the poor. The TII-CMS study should be viewed, in this context, as "a tool to sensitise the larger public and concerned stakeholders, and prompt governments and civil society groups to take locally relevant initiatives".

Srivastava explains that a vast network of experienced investigators and field workers carried out the survey, covering 22,728 randomly selected BPL households. The field work took place between November 2007 and January 2008.

The findings emphasise the fact that no state is near the 'zero corruption' mark. However, the level is relatively moderate in some states including Himachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, Chandigarh and Tripura. It's high in others such as Gujarat, Jharkhand, Kerala, Delhi, Orissa and Manipur, very high in states like Rajasthan, Karnataka and Meghalaya, and highest (to the extent of being 'alarming') in Assam, Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh and Goa.

This nationwide survey suggests an agenda; it is up to civil society and politicians to respond. The direction is clear: urgent measures are needed to curb corruption, particularly as it affects those living at the margins. There is need for widespread awareness, vigilance, and committed efforts to improve governance and check dishonest practices at every level. It must be recognised that public services are entitlements, not charity to be provided or denied according to whim. States that are worst affected obviously need to devise strategies to deal with what is, in effect, not only a crisis of governance but also an ethical crisis.

CMS and TII have already held a series of meetings with various government departments to discuss the relevant findings and suggest possible strategies. They understand that it is important to work with policymakers as well as with people at the grassroots. Seeing the research as only Phase I, R H Tahiliani, Chairperson, TII, describes plans on the anvil for advocacy: "Phase II and Phase III of this endeavour would include training of grassroots-level workers and activists and arming them with information about the extent of the corruption in different areas, and use of the Right to Information Act to empower the poorest to stand their ground and not pay bribes while demanding and accessing the services they are entitled to." TII hopes to provide each BPL household in the country with a passbook of entitlements and keep them updated periodically so as to fight poverty and improve the lot of the poorest of the poor.

(Deepti Priya Mehrotra is a Delhi-based writer)

InfoChange News & Features, August 2008