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One of the questions people keep asking me since my entry into politics is what we can do about corruption. What would I do, one citizen recently asked in an on-line chat, if I became the "concerned authority"? No such prospect -- the Vigilance Commissioner isn't a Member of Parliament! -- but in fact corruption is a national malaise and a social ill, not just one that a "concerned authority" can solve. We are all complicit -- those who demand bribes and those who give them.

But one of the things that intrigues me is the extent to which corruption is a middle-class preoccupation, when in fact the biggest victims of corruption in our country are in fact the poor. For the affluent, corruption is at worst a nuisance; for the salaried middle-class, it can be an indignity and a burden; but for the poor, it is often a tragedy.

The saddest corruption stories I have heard are those where corruption literally transforms lives for the worse. There are stories about the pregnant woman turned away from a government hospital because she couldn't bribe her way to a bed; the labourer denied an allotment of land that was his due because someone else bribed the patwari to change the land records; the pensioner denied the rightful fruits of decades of toil because he couldn't or wouldn't bribe the petty clerk to process his paperwork; the wretchedly poor unable to procure the BPL ["Below Poverty Line"] cards that certify their entitlement to various government schemes and subsidies because they couldn't afford to bribe the issuing officer; the poor widow cheated of an insurance settlement because she couldn't grease the right palms ... the examples are endless. Each of these represents not just an injustice, but a crime, and yet the officials responsible get away with their exactions all the time. And all their victims are people living at or near a poverty line that's been drawn just this side of the funeral pyre.

One of the reasons that I was an early supporter of economic liberalization in India was that I hoped it would reduce corruption by denying officialdom the opportunity (afforded routinely by our license-quota-permit raj) to profit from the power to permit. That has happened to some degree, especially at the big-business level. But I underestimated the creativity of petty corruption in India that leeches blood from the veins of the poorest and most downtrodden in our society. No one seems to be able to do anything about it, but I'd like to try. I'd welcome any ideas readers might have to set me on my way.

This blog was originally posted on on May 8, 2009