Friday, May 21, 2010

The multimillion rupee bribes

One wonders whether it is just coincidence. In at least three recent cases three different individuals were nabbed for asking for and accepting bribes of Rs. 2 crore (Rs. 20 million). Manjit Singh Bali, holding the very senior position of Chief Postmaster General of Maharashtra & Goa, was caught red-handed accepting bribe of Rs. 2 crore and was promptly arrested. Similarly, a senior lady officer, perhaps an additional commissioner of the Income Tax Department in Thane, Maharashtra, was also arrested for taking Rs. 2 crore as bribe. She was working in cahoots with her husband who acted as the cash collector. Ketan Desai, Chairman of the Medical Council of India, too was nabbed while taking a Re 2-crore bribe. Coincidence or not, this infernal amount, apparently some sort of going rate, is jinxed.

There is something about crores that make those who want a great life ask for it. A few lakhs or even a crore, apparently, are pass̩ Рpresumably, not enough to buy all that an ambitious and thoroughly unscrupulous person looking for a great life desires. Looks like, the amount of a couple of crores or more is somewhat like El Dorado; it drives people to put at stake everything they have to get there. The seductive high life beckons them like a temptress and, finding it irresistible, they succumb to its charms and take the plunge.

How times have changed! Only a few decades back a crore was something eminently ungettable any which way for an official. Back then not many aspired to accumulate even a lakh (one hundred thousand rupees). Lakhpaties were few and could be counted on finger tips. Among the middle classes “four-figure salaries” were a big deal. Parents used to look for “beautiful, fair and highly accomplished” brides for their sons claiming a “four-figure salary” for them. In the 1960s the best of services, including the civil services, used to start off with a three-figure salary of Rs. 400/- with, maybe, Rs. 10/- as DA. Only at retirement one would end up with a salary of four figures. Looking into the future in those days one thought one’s life would be made if one, after judiciously managing one’s finances, could retire with around a lakh in the bank and live off the (woefully meagre) pension that was yet to be made 50% of the last pay.

Looking back, one finds that ambitions and aspirations of the kind one sees today to strike it big had yet to raise their ugly heads. Unbelievable as it may seem, those were the days of innocence. Not quite open to the wider world, we were yet to be exposed to the glitz and glamour of the West – its acquisitiveness and its consumerism. The system had kept the people, including most of the bureaucracy, insulated from external influences. While politicians made merry, the rest lived out their lives in an economy of shortages. Those who were straight – and most were so – lived a life, even at the higher levels of the bureaucracy, which was, if anything, Spartan. Even in early 1980s Secretaries and additional secretaries to Government of India would routinely ride chartered buses in Delhi to go to office – and they were not ashamed of doing so.

A sea-change seems to have occurred with the opening up of the economy. With multinationals and foreign corporations setting shop in the country and consequential burgeoning of demands of IT and management professionals the pay packages skyrocketed. Not to be left behind, the last two pay commissions gave the salaries in the government a huge heave, so much so that the top bureaucrats today are at spitting distance of the five-figure mark. And yet, corrupt remained corrupt, perhaps became more so, setting their sights higher looking for multi-crore underhand deals, presumably to compete with those in private sector. In Madhya Pradesh as many three IAS officers, including an IAS couple (both of Principal Secretary level) were found by tax officials with money and jewellery stashed away in several lockers worth several crores sources of which they could not explain. Recently a Joint Secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs at the Centre was nabbed and disclosures made by intelligence sleuths on phone tapping carried by the Outlook magazine made a mention of a senior official in South Block negotiating for a bribe of Rs 8 crores. Seems like everyone is chasing rainbows!

There were corrupt even then but their numbers were limited. Politicians were (and are even today) corrupt. They used to play around with ill-gotten crores during the elections. Hung elections were happy events for many politicians as that was when they would sell themselves to the highest bidder. Bureaucracy was, however, largely untouched by this malaise. Some would surely indulge in wheeling and dealing but that would not involve mindboggling sums like those of today. With ethical and moral standards getting a knock-over, people now have become reckless. Those who want to make it big by hook or by crook, seemingly, think nothing of facing the indignity of being caught in the act of committing a crime which is still considered reprehensible, though bribe-giving or bribe-taking has virtually become our way of life.

They are not held back by the prospects of being unable to look at their family, friends, colleagues and subordinates in the eye or being hustled like common criminals in public and media gaze by policemen into waiting vans with heavily grilled windows and, unlike their official luxury sedans, with seats that are hard and straight-backed on which a posse of gruff cops make themselves comfortable all around, seemingly, to prevent an escape, if attempted. Myriad 24X7 TV news channels show their discomfiture in half-hourly news-bulletins dragging their names through mud and slime. Further indignities await them when they are detained and eventually jailed by having to rub shoulders with the dregs of society.

Consumed by the Western consumer-culture people in general and those wielding power and influence in particular seem to be losing their sense of balance and character. Worse, our demand-driven development model, unfortunately, promotes the same cult of consumerism. With the progressively loosening grip of traditional values, weaker minds seem to be falling prey, as it were, to this monster and are opting for a self-defeating denouement. It is a contagion which seems to be rapidly spreading in the current Indian society and, unless checked, may engulf all of it with consequences that could be disastrous.
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DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION Rama Chandra Guha, free-thinker, author and historian Ram Chandra Guha, a free-thinker, author and...