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India’s Easy Villains: Why the Indian Government’s Concessions on Corruption Will Achieve Very Little

When India’s disgraced sports tsar, Suresh Kalmadi, walked into a New Delhi court on the morning of April 26th, a chappal (open-toed shoe) hurled at him missed by a few inches, “robbing him,” as the Calcutta Telegraph gleefully reported, of his “all seasons grin.”

Kalmadi, the chief organizer of the 2010 Commonwealth Games and President of the Indian Olympic Association, was arrested last week on April 25th, following a prolonged investigation into allegations of corruption associated with the event.  The Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), India’s anti-corruption watchdog, has received complaints alleging that some US$1.8 billion of the Games’ US$6 billion budget were misappropriated (the specific charge against Kalmadi is that he rigged a contract in favor of a Swiss company while procuring equipment for the event).

In India, Kalmadi’s arrest is being read as a sign that the Indian government is serious about tackling corruption.

A series of corruption scandals has plagued India in recent months.  In March, the CVC’s chief, P.J. Thomas, was forced to resign by the Supreme Court because he himself was facing allegations of corruption.  A more notorious case was the multi-million dollar scandal over the sale, in 2008, of mobile phone licenses for a fraction of their real value.  This “2G spectrum scam,” as it is known in India, is said to have resulted in a staggering US$39 billion loss to the national exchequer.  About a dozen of India’s most eminent politicians, civil servants, and journalists were implicated in the imbroglio that surfaced in November 2010, only weeks after various tales of egregious corruption had bubbled up around the Commonwealth Games.  It is surely significant that Kalmadi was arrested on the same day that Kanimozhi Karunanidhi — a member of the upper house of parliament and daughter of an important ally in India’s governing coalition — was charged as a conspirator in the 2G scam.

The government has endured other embarrassments.

In the past few years, Transparency International has consistently downgraded India’s ranking in its Corruption Perceptions Index from 72nd in 2009, to 85th in 2010, to a new low of 87th in 2011 (the index measures the perceived levels of public sector corruption in 178 countries around the world).  Last week, on April 27th, the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, alleged that Indians have more “black money” in Swiss bank accounts than any other nationality.  Also last week, a parliamentary committee (Public Accounts Committee) assigned to investigate the 2G scam bitterly criticized the Prime Minister’s Office for its lack of oversight in the matter, and implicated Home Minister P. Chidambaram in the scam (the report has been rejected by the government on methodological grounds).

But perhaps the heftiest blow was delivered in early April, when Gandhian social activist Anna Hazare launched a four-day-long “fast unto death” to push for stronger anti-corruption laws, including one that would establish a Lokpal (ombudsman) to adjudicate corruption cases involving public officials.  Unsettled by the vigorous nationwide protests in support of Hazare, the central government was quick to agree to his key demands.  A “Lokpal bill” will be introduced in this year’s “monsoon session” of parliament and will most likely pass by August 15th.  The intention seems genuine enough.  Taking their cue, the Indian news media have been reporting on Kalmadi’s incarceration and the Lokpal bill with the same, delighted breath.  “Heads will finally roll” is an oft-repeated phrase.

It is tempting to crow when the mighty fall, especially when they are easy to dislike.  Yet contemptible celebrities like Kalmadi are best viewed as convenient villains who serve to individualize the problem of corruption and conceal its deeper roots.  Indeed, one should be most wary of the undercurrent of triumphalism associated with the targeting of high-profile personalities and also the government’s acceptance of technocratic, top-down solutions such as the establishment of a Lokpal.

These are narrow, depoliticized victories grounded in a fundamental denial of the extent to which India’s mainstream media and new middle classes have facilitated the corruption they now so loudly bemoan.  They have done so by marginalizing if not silencing those who have raised questions about the India’s existing mode of development.  When presented with evidence of the country’s poverty, inequality, abysmally low levels of social spending (around 3 percent of GDP, well below international norms), and soaring levels of corruption, they have repeatedly looked the other way, along with many members of the judiciary (which is ironic, given that judges, along with Nobel laureates of Indian origin, are conceptualized in early drafts of the Lokpal Bill as would-be knights in shining armor).

I am not arguing that corruption should go unpunished.  It is well known that those without resources and connections — the poor — have to pay the most for corruption.  According to a study conducted by Transparency International in 2008, India’s poor pay some US$200 million in bribes to avail of basic services every year.  My point is that the problem of corruption is not about specific individuals, who presumably lack the moral fiber that judges and Nobel prize winners are blessed with.

Corruption is about a violated process.  It is deeply ingrained in India’s development machinery; indeed, even more so now than in the days of Nehruvian statism, when there were fewer opportunities to make a quick buck.  In post-liberalization India’s desperate bid to “shine,” be a “global player,” and become “world class” — mantras sung by the government, media, and middle classes alike — far too many people, decisions, and processes have been exempt from democratic scrutiny.

The 2010 Commonwealth Games are a case in point.

The endless reports of venality and fraud now associated with the event are but an expected outcome of the secrecy, opaque decision-making, and suppression of voice that marked its foundational fabric.

India’s bid for the event — now acknowledged as the most expensive Commonwealth Games ever — was never discussed in Parliament.  Nor was there any public debate or opinion poll among Delhi’s residents as to whether the event should be held in their city (even so, the bid document claimed that “the entire nation supports the cause of the Games”).  Notably, in a report released in May 2010 by Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), India’s decision to bid for the Games was approved by the cabinet in only September 2003 — that is, barely two months prior to the Commonwealth Games Federation’s official announcement that Delhi had been selected as the host city for 2010.

India’s lengthy bid document contained pledges to pay for the air travel of accredited athletes and accompanying officials, their accommodation (in a “modern and swanky Games Village”), a special lane reserved for participants on all major roads of Delhi, and “world class” health facilities, including a medical center at the Games Village “fully equipped with the latest state-of-the-art gadgets.”  The bid committee, whose promises extended much beyond the minimum requirements specified by the Commonwealth Games Federation, reportedly also made a last-minute pledge of US$7.2 million to train athletes of all member countries of the Commonwealth, which is said to have swayed the final decision in India’s favor.

According to HRLN’s report, the bid committee was given a “blank cheque” by then Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, whose party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), popularized the slogan “Shining India” in the run-up to 2004’s general elections.  But the sentiment that India was well on its way to achieving “world class” status, and that the Commonwealth Games would prove it, clearly cut across party lines.  India’s bid for the Games was heartily endorsed by the Congress chief minister of Delhi and the leader of the opposition, Sonia Gandhi.

In the seven years between the bid and the execution of the event, many questions were raised by civil society groups and independent activists.  These concerns drew relatively little attention from the news media.  They largely went unheeded or were deliberately quashed.  For example, the government’s plan to build a large athletes’ complex (Games Village) on the floodplains of the river Yamuna was protested by environmentalist groups on the grounds that the land is ecologically fragile.  It was also known that the project would lead to the eviction of hundreds of low-income families from squatter settlements in the area.

In November 2008, several years after these initial concerns had been raised, a group of social activists succeeded in making the Delhi High Court freeze construction on the Village and order the creation of an environmental panel to investigate its ecological impact.  The government appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the High Court’s ruling would “seriously jeopardize the very conduct and holding of the 2010 games in Delhi.”  Swift to act, the Supreme Court ruled that the government had met all the approvals it needed.  It not only overturned the Delhi High Court’s verdict, but also barred the latter from conducting any further hearings on the matter.  This important decision was only lazily reported in the press and, outside activist circles, provoked little moral outrage.

Many concerns were raised, furthermore, about how public money was used to turn the Games Village into an exclusive, gated community for the rich.

Built on a public-private-partnership agreement between Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and Emaar MGF — a real estate giant experienced in executing luxury, master-planned townships — the projected cost of the Village was about US$230 million.  According to the agreement, DDA would own one-third of the 1,168 apartments, while Emaar would retain two-thirds, for sale in the open market.  While bidding for the Games, the Indian government said that DDA’s share would be used to house Delhi University students, thus partially compensating for the dearth of student residences in the city.  As construction proceeded, however, it was evident that the DDA-Emaar combine had other plans.  The Village was to be equipped with state-of-the-art security, an upscale shopping mall, a water treatment plant worth US$6 million, a “green” power grid worth US$8 million, the country’s first “green helipad,” and a dedicated corridor of Delhi Metro connecting it to the airport.  Not quite a student housing complex!  Certainly, students were not a consideration when Delhi MLAs (Members of Legislative Assembly) demanded the apartments at discounted rates.

Today, many apartments in this “self-contained premium residential community” (as one real estate company touts the Village) are selling for US$1 million and beyond.  But the clincher, perhaps, is that Emaar ultimately failed to hold up its end of the deal.  In May 2009, DDA announced a US$150 million bailout package for Emaar, which was defended by the national minister for urban development as a “buy-back arrangement by the DDA to enable the developer to complete the Games Village.”  Indian taxpayers were going to have to pay for the conversion of public green space into heavily guarded private property.  But there were no apologies, and beyond a point, none were demanded.  Such, after all, was the price of being “world class.”

It is hardly shocking, in light of how money was being bandied about, that the cost of the Games escalated from an initial projection of US$44 million, in 2003, to an estimated US$6 billion by the end of the event.  Some independent experts have claimed that the government actually spent far more, in the range of US$15 billion, especially during last summer’s mad rush to complete various sporting venues in time and “beautify” the city (with such ugly things as plastic screens to hide slums).  With India’s “world class” status at stake and a looming deadline, the organizers and executers of the event were granted almost total discretion over spending.  It was evident that the government was willing to endure any cost, social, economic, even political, to move the Games forward.  In terms of the last, however, there appeared to be few causes for worry.

There was no public outcry when Jantar Mantar — one of the few spaces in Delhi where democratic protest is legally permitted — was targeted by Delhi’s police and city officials.  In March 2010, the area was unceremoniously cleared of overnight demonstrators, an act justified with a simple argument: the space had to be readied for tourists.  Few questions were raised, moreover, when the city was turned into a quasi military zone.  The Games’ security plan, known for a while, included fences and walls, helicopter surveillance, new armored vehicles for Delhi Police, CCTV cameras in strategic points of the city, and the deployment of tens of thousands of police, paramilitary troops, elite commandos, snipers, and bomb-disposal units.  Anti-begging police squads were used to round up “beggars” and “relocate” them to the remote peripheries of the city.

Anything for the Games — anything for India’s moment of glory.  The organizers and executers of this spectacular “mega-event” surely felt invincible.  Indeed, it would have been far more unusual, given all of this, if no money had gone missing!

But the Commonwealth Games bespeak a larger truth: if you peddle the dream of a “world class” India, you can get away with almost anything.  Take the example of India’s Special Economic Zones (SEZs), the tax-free and unregulated industrial areas the government has promoted in recent years to boost India’s global exports.

Many protests have been launched in opposition to the corruption-ridden land acquisition process for creating these “world class” enclaves.  Blatant abuses of the Land Acquisition Act by government officials in cahoots with private developers were already known well before the passage of an SEZ Act in 2005.  Yet the SEZ Act was passed relatively speedily and with minimal debate, especially when compared to the stormy discussions (in both the parliament and media), repeated delays, and watering down that have routinely besieged the enactment of social legislation in India, such as the Unorganized Workers’ Social Security Act or even the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA).  Even more worryingly, the SEZ Act contained several provisions that would effectively remove SEZs from the purview of democratic scrutiny, such as one that empowers state governments to set up special courts to try civil cases originating in SEZs (critics say this provision makes it easier to harass union organizers and social activists), and another that permits the central government to declare any of its laws inapplicable within SEZs.

If the government is serious about investigating the copious allegations of corruption associated with SEZs, this is not the way to do it.  Nothing facilitates corruption more effectively than throwing a veil over democratic processes and removing conveniently selected swathes of geography and society from its discipline.  Yet this point is usually lost on India’s corporate-controlled media and buoyant middle classes, who frequently (and predictably) call for raising India’s “governance standards” to that of “world class.”  Such sentiments find their way into international coverage of the issue, often in articles written by non-resident Indians (NRIs) harboring boosterist views about India’s economic prospects.  An article in Foreign Policy (on corruption and the Commonwealth Games) reports that “even as (India’s) private sector booms . . . the quality of governance remains abysmal,” as though the two phenomena are unrelated.  The article recommends that “Indian politicians are held to the same standards as their counterparts in advanced democracies” and that the “Indian middle class” have a “greater say in the country’s governance.”

The idea — that surfaces in initiatives such as the Lokpal Bill — is most disturbing.

The fact remains that India’s new bourgeoisie has a highly ambivalent relationship with democracy, supporting it in principle, but acquiescing to numerous authoritarian lapses, especially when these are seen as leading to greater national prestige or security, a stronger economy, and (ironically) a more cosmopolitan way of life.  The sentiment that India would be better off as a dictatorship is not uncommon among India’s upwardly mobile classes, nor among affluent Indians living abroad.  Public debate, discussion, democratic procedure, meaningful citizen participation — and genuine real accountability and transparency — are foreseeable casualties of this mindset.

Until India’s master-narrative of growth-at-any-cost is rethought and deeper democratic control over development processes is achieved, the downfall of specific, high-profile individuals and apolitical concessions such as the Lokpal Bill will achieve little in terms of eliminating corruption (for an excellent critique of the Lokpal Bill, see Shuddhabrata Sengupta’s article in Kafila.org).  They will remain symbolic but empty gestures, meant to temporarily dissipate anger and assuage resentment.


Mitu Sengupta is Associate Professor of Politics, Ryerson University, Toronto, and Director for the Centre for Development and Human Rights, New Delhi.  She may be reached via <msengupta@gmail.com>.  An earlier version of this essay was posted on CounterPunch.


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