High Places…and Low Places

We are all quite animated about corruption in the political sphere. Whenever a chief minister or a minister is accused of a scam, we get all charged up. We also need to know that, time and again, a lot of initiatives are taken to clean up the public offices. Supreme Court is one of the chief crusaders in this attempt, often even going to the extent of judicial overreach, about which we’ll discuss in a different piece. There are other institutions as well, such as the Election Commission.

Did you know that India is the first country in the world to introduce electronic voting system? Do you know that today India is not only the largest population to vote in a democratic process, but also using the electronic voting process that is the largest in the world. In the 2004 general elections, more than one million voting machines were put to service. The ‘electronification’ process has not only made electioneering easy and quicker, it has also made it largely free of rigging attempts. Previously, India had the unique problem called ‘ballot stuffing’ where the ballot box was captured by the goons who filled it with thousands of voting slips favouring their candidate to influence the counting. The voting machine takes 12 seconds to refresh from one vote to the next. Even if someone ‘captures’ a machine and keeps ‘voting’ every 12 seconds, if the machine receives continuously 10 votes in the gap of 12 seconds, it senses malpractice and resets itself to zero, thereby thwarting such attempts to influence the polling.

The lesser known initiative by the Election Commission is that of arranging polling officers. For every polling booth government officers and teachers are assigned to work as the officers managing the polling process. Previously, the list of polling officers used to be released a week before, usually assigning officers to their own locality. This led to the candidates getting hold of these officers and attempting to ‘influence’ them with as many means as possible. Today, Election Commission uses a software that randomises the assignment of polling officers and ensures that they are not assigned to their own native place or places where their ‘clan’ are contesting. Also, since this is done through software, the information of who is assigned where is revealed only on the day of the poll, making it virtually impossible for the candidates to try to influence the officers.

Sounds great, isn’t it? Check this out as well. There are ITC’s e-Choupal centres, which is nothing but more than 7000 IT kiosks across the rural centres that help farmers check commodity prices and sell crops online. The NCDEX (National Commodity Index) trades pulses and edible oils online and has installed 20,000 terminals across rural India. These initiatives help farmers cut the middlemen who usually buy crops at rates far lower than the market value and causing farmers to lose on profits. Small farmers in the rural areas used to be unaware of the market prices due to lack of access to towns and had no option but to rely on the middlemen. Now this is changing.

Going back a bit, do you know why railway ticketing system was thought up? Because the railway staff and the agents were running a cartel that was making something as simple as buying a train ticket a nightmare and riddled with corruption. Those who crib endlessly about how slow the website of our railways is would do well to once in a while recall how the process of ticket buying used to be until the late 80s.

Do you know why Aadhar, the biometric ID card was thought up? The unique ID project qualifies as one of the largest and most complex IT projects in the world. The root lies in our rural development programmes. Our food for work, rural employment, subsidies for Below Poverty Level (BPL) people, and flood and drought relief schemes were not really reaching our people. Usually the rural officials ‘eat’ up a major share out of these benefits and pass on only whatever was left to the actual beneficiaries. The Unique ID aims to tie each ID card to a bank account. This way the benefits, from relief funds to gas and food subsidy, can be directly deposited into the bank account of individuals, thereby almost virtually eradicating corruption in these schemes.

So what is the point of this piece then? If you see all those electronification and automation attempts made in our country, they were all aimed to ‘eradicate corruption’. In developed countries in the US and Europe, automation usually aims to ‘reduce labour’ as labour is scare and also expensive there. In India, we automate not to contain cost, but to contain corruption.

Talking about the automation measures affecting politcians, N Gopalswami, former election commissioner, says that of course, ‘they can find elegant ways around…, but IT makes it a lot harder for them.’

Well, the question is, we seem to be investing billions of rupees towards containing corruption through automation and IT-enabled solutions. But how much have we actually spent so far in ensuring that our people stop being corrupt? There is so much of initiative around this electioneering, but has any candidate lost his MLA or MP seat for rigging? Has any polling booth officer been jailed for colluding with a candidate? Has any candidate lost his/her nomination on charges of rigging? We all cheer the efforts of the Supreme Court in ‘containing’ corruption in high places, but what about corruption in low places? What about the village tehsildar (revenue inspector) who pockets funds allocated for drought relief? What about the headmaster of the local school who pockets the money allotted for poor Dalit parents to encourage them to enrol their children in schools? What about the village official who takes a cut from the salary paid to an illiterate labour for the rural employment scheme? How much of automation is going to ensure that India is totally corruption free in low places?

We talk so much about Helicopter and Spectrum scams because they involve central ministers and large corporate companies. The fact that somebody received kickbacks in these scams is not really going to affect the life of an average Indian. But think of the corruption in low places. A farmer faces a drought season and the local official is thrilled, because he knows that the relief package is on its way! A rice-for-work scheme is announced for people living below poverty levels and the tehsildar begins to plan jewellery or a new air-conditioner. Consequently, the farmer, the peasant, the semi-illiterate labourer increasingly loses hope in our system and their disgruntlement is easily cashed in by the militant groups such as Maoists or making them also part of the corrupt system.

We install internet kiosks in villages because there is no pucca road connecting the village to the nearby town. As a result, the road remains unpaved. Of course money gets allotted year on year towards the road-laying project, which gets spent as vitrified tiles one year, LED TV the next year in the contractor’s house. Looking at these, we electronify more. The officials continue to go scot free, continuing to ‘find elegant ways around’.

We speak and write so much about corruption in ‘high places’, but we never refer to the corruption among all of us. We have already decided to ‘isolate’ the politicians from society. To us, they come from Mars and therefore their corruption is despicable. But we’re blind to the corruption pervading every part of society, encouraged by every action of apathy and willing suspension of disbelief. We can’t try to look at our life and clean up the skeletons in our closets or educate someone else on it. But we are ever ready to cry hoarse about this Congress minister or that BJP MP.

We are willing to spend billions in ‘combating’ corruption through automation, but we won’t spend a single rupee towards educating our children, our friends, our husbands, our wives towards living cleaner lives.

Meanwhile, we are all busy finding elegant ways around these systems.



  • Imagining India by Nandan Nilekeni
  • Everybody Loves a Good Drought by Palagummi Sainath