VIEW: Attitudes towards corruption —Anwar Syed - Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The act of cheating in a business transaction will be considered blameworthy. So will theft. But cheating the state or stealing from the treasury, especially if one has gotten away with it, is not regarded as reprehensible in our culture

While I was visiting friends in New Delhi a few days ago, a man named Anna Hazare, one of the few still living disciples of Mahatma Gandhi, went on a hunger strike to protest the corruption in his country. After breaking his fast upon the insistence of his followers, he initiated a mass movement against corruption, which millions of Indians have joined. They have been organising processions and marches to register their feelings. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government has introduced a bill in parliament to stiffen the penalties for corruption among public officials. The protesters say it is not good enough. One will have to wait to see what else Dr Manmohan Singh can do to mitigate this evil.

It is a fair assumption that most Pakistani commentators will denounce corruption while they speak from public platforms. But I do not remember any of them organising a movement against this scourge. It may be useful at this point to delimit the connotation of corruption. It can take numerous forms but in the more common understanding it is equated with the giving and taking of bribes. The seducer gives a public official a sum of money to grant him a benefit, which falls in his discretion to give or deny, or grant him a benefit to which he is not entitled under the law, or to overlook his violation of a law. In each of these cases the public authority is being deprived of the funds or other dues that were owed to it. It may be said that the public official and the seducer have joined hands in stealing from the treasury.

Commentators, speaking from the pulpit, will condemn the afore-mentioned conduct. But in their actual practice they will not rebuff those who give and take bribes. I have heard of situations in which the parents of a girl rejected a young man who wanted her hand in marriage on the ground that, being a police officer, he was likely to be receptive to unlawful inducements. But such cases are extremely rare. The greater likelihood is that the girl’s parents will be more than willing to have this police officer as a son-in-law, not only because he is tall and handsome, but mainly because his sources of income extend beyond his officially designated salary. They and he will call this additional intake as a bounty from Allah.

The act of cheating in a business transaction will be considered blameworthy. So will theft. But cheating the state or stealing from the treasury, especially if one has gotten away with it, is not regarded as reprehensible in our culture. Two reasons for this attitude come to mind. The state is an abstraction. Stealing from it actually means stealing from its agent, which is the government of the day. If an individual finds his way to the treasury and takes out a fistful or two of coins, he may have taken more than his share, but his act may not be regarded as theft in the usual sense of that term. The same result may ensue if a person’s sense of identification with the government is fragile. This particularly may be the case if the prevailing government is seen as an oppressor and an exploiter.

It is not uncommon to hear that a given society as such is corrupt, meaning that all of its members, or a great many of them, rob one another. This understanding will bear a corrective. A person will have to be the owner of things worth having if he is to be an attractive target for robbers. Consider also that robbers have to be powerful and influential enough to get away with their action. It follows that a corrupt society is one in which the wealthy and the powerful take from its weaker and less prosperous members. They make the poor poorer. A government acts the same way when it exempts certain types of income, howsoever large they may be, and levies a general sales tax on consumer items that the poor as well as the rich must buy.

The present government in Pakistan is said to be unspeakably corrupt. It is my impression that corruption in government travels from the top down and not from the bottom up. An inspector general of police is not corrupt because the district police officers within his jurisdiction take bribes. It may be the other way around. The district police officers may be taking bribes because they have come to know that their boss, the inspector general, is amenable to graft. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s government at the Centre is alleged to be thoroughly corrupt. Not only he and some of his ministers and higher officials are said to be on the take, they are alleged to have gone out of their way to protect individuals and organisations accused of massive wrongdoing.

This government and the PPP whose agent it is have fallen low in public esteem. They are believed to be on their way out. They do not form a majority in the National Assembly and some of their former coalition partners have abandoned them. Political observers anticipate that their budget for the next fiscal year will not pass in the National Assembly, in which case their government will fall. Mr Gilani’s government is perceived as being both corrupt and incompetent. These two deficiencies do not necessarily go together. An individual or an organisation may be corrupt, but it may at the same time be efficient when it wants to be that way. It is hard to say whether the political forces in this country will oust Mr Gilani’s government (if they do so) because it is corrupt or because it is incompetent. My own feeling is that had it been reasonably effective and only moderately corrupt, it would not be marching towards its demise.

The writer, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, is a visiting professor at the Lahore School of Economics. He can be reached at

Source :\04\26\story_26-4-2011_pg3_3

No comments:

Post a Comment