The electoral debacle of the DMK-Congress in Tamil Nadu highlights public disgust with corruption , and underpins the Anna Hazare anti-graft crusade. But is corruption really worsening, or is the public simply angrier about it? Most survey data suggest, surprisingly , that corruption has been declining . Crooked politicians look enormously richer than ever before. Corruption has surely skyrocketed in real estate, natural resources and government contracts. But it has disappeared in deregulated areas like industrial and import licensing and foreign exchange.
Falling import duties have almost killed smuggling.
The annual corruption perception index of Transparency International (TI) gives country scores for corruption on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most corrupt and 10 being least corrupt. India has gradually improved its score, from 2.78 in 1995 to 2.8 in 2000, 2.9 in 2005 and 3.3 in 2010. This is modest improvement.
In 1995, India was ranked 34th of 41 countries surveyed, near the bottom. But subsequent surveys covered many more countries, most of whom were far more corrupt than India. In 2010, India came 87th of 178 countries, halfway down the list. This is no cause for rejoicing: a score of 3.3 is pathetic when the best countries score 9. But it’s a small mercy if things are getting a bit better.
In 2010, China (3.5) scored marginally more than India. Much worse were Vietnam (2.7), Pakistan (2.3) and Russia (2.1).
TI has a separate bribe payers index (BPI), measuring the willingness of a country’s businesses to pay bribes abroad. The latest list for 2008 list covers only 22 countries. The most willing to bribe abroad is Russia (5.9) followed by China (6.5), Mexico (6.6) and India (6.8). So, India is pretty bad, but not the worst. Its score has improved from 4.2 in 2006 to 6.8 in 2008, and it has overtaken China, Mexico and Russia in the process.
Ordinary Indians worry most about the small local-level corruption that extracts money directly from their pockets for services that should be free. TI surveys show that people perceive corruption to be rising in the vast majority of countries, even the most honest Scandinavian countries, and it’s unclear whether such perception is mostly emotional or factual. More reliable than perceptions are data on the proportion of households who actually paid a bribe in the last year.
TI brings out a Global Corruption Barometer. This suggests that bribes paid by ordinary Indians for access to government services have shot up from 16% of households in 2003 to 54% in 2010. That sounds absolutely calamitous. But the very opposite is suggested by surveys conducted by CMS, a wellrespected survey organization. CMS suggests that the proportion of Indians saying they paid a bribe in the 12 months literally halved from 56% to 28% between 2005 and 2010. This looks like a fabulous outcome. Ironically, the CMS report was released by the local head of Transparency International , with no sense of the glaring contradiction between the two reports . The TI surveys have a small sample size of around 1,000 people. CMS, on the other hand, surveyed almost 9,000 people in 2005 and 10,000 in 2010, and therefore boasts a more robust statistical base. The CMS also has a more rural focus.
The CMS survey asked about bribes in relation to four government services – the public distribution system for food, education, water supply and health. The TI survey covered nine areas, including the police , courts and registry officials. Can this explain the difference in outcome of the two surveys? Not really , it is implausible that the four areas surveyed by CMS could have improved dramatically while the others surveyed by TI worsened dramatically : quality trends in administration tend to be similar across sectors.
Surveys can be contradictory. We cannot ignore the Barometer’s survey . Yet the positive trends of the CMS survey are more in line with TI’s corruption perception index and bribe payers index, both of which show corruption decreasing. CMS gives several possible reasons for declining bribes, such as improved technology and media activism . Nonsense, say sceptics, politicians are making unprecedented billions today. The debate will continue.
Whatever the truth, we can celebrate the CMS finding that media and TV coverage of corruption has risen fourfold in five years! This suggests a social revolution. Fast GDP growth has created a rising middle class that refuses to sit back and accept corruption as “chalta hai.” TV is amplifying this middle class anger into political change, first in Anna Hazare’s coup and now in the DMK defeat. Hurrah! Let’s build on this anger : we have a long way to go.