The Corruption Survey – a Critical Analysis
By T.R. Raghunandan, 01 May 2017

Recently, the newspapers extensively covered the survey undertaken by the Centre for Media Studies, New Delhi on the prevalence of corruption in India. The Study, titled Perception and Experience with Public Services (Corruption Study 2017), will set the news media and political parties abuzz. They will be licking their chops at the prospect to taking pot shots at each other, based on – usually, a selective – reading of the contents of the report. The Media will profit from this as well, as hysterically sanctimonious anchors will grill panellists for from various political parties and ask embarrassing questions, with little hope of obtaining substantive answers. TV advertising revenues will increase, as viewership will hopefully increase with the free entertainment provided by all. 

However, for someone who wishes to delve a bit deeper into the issue of corruption, a critical analysis of the study is useful. In this regard, several points are to be kept in mind. The first concerns the scope of the Study and the second, its actual focus of investigation.

The Corruption Study 2017 covers the delivery of services from the government to the citizens. The services covered in the Study are the Public Distribution System (PDS), Banking Services, Electricity, Police, Health/Hospital, Judicial services, School Education, Land/Housing, Water Supply and Tax services in urban areas (income/sales/excise). The States covered are Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. The States of Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, Telangana, and Tripura are not covered; so those governing these States can heave a sigh of relief. Second, the survey covers both the perception of corruption that citizens hold, as also the incidence of corruption that they have had to personally face. This is an important distinction that will need to be remembered when the results of the Study are appreciated.

In each state, the sample for the study comprised of around 150 households from at least 2 districts, with one of the districts covered being the state capital. Interviews and questionnaires were used to capture information from the interviewees. In simple words, to ascertain the perception of corruption, people were asked whether they thought if corruption existed in any of the services covered under the Study. In order to ascertain the incidence of corruption, they were asked a more pointed question; whether in the past year they had ever had to pay a bribe. Since this last time a similar study was conducted by the CMS was in 2005, sample households were also asked if they thought corruption had undergone an increase, or whether it was on the wane.

Since the Study ranks States on a scale from the most corrupt to the least, it puts many people involved in governance in the hot seat. Politicians and the media are likely to make sweeping remarks about the state of corruption in India and as is the case with most reports, come to reductionist conclusions that stray so far away from what the report has said that they end up being falsehoods.

The first question to be asked then, is whether this report constitutes a conclusive and wide enough band of evidence, to conclude that one State is more corrupt than another. The answer is a clear ‘no’. The reason is that corruption – even if limited to bribery alone – covers a wide range of transactions than the delivery of public services in a few departments. In all fairness, the study also does not claim to make sweeping judgments, and confines its application to a few selected government to citizen services. Thus, declining levels of corruption in these services may also mean that corruption has migrated up the supply chain of service delivery. While local services may be corruption free, public procurements by the Government may have become much more corruption prone.

The brief conclusion is that the Study does not provide scope for either gloating over successes, accusation of the States that show bad or worsening performance, or complacence with the overall reduction in the incidence of corruption in the country.

Beginning with this blog, I will take a critical look at some of the results of the Study and also explore the larger question of how reliable such Studies are and how best they might be designed and conducted.