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The ‘Inevitable’ Corruption of the Amorally Honest

T.R. Raghunandan

14 March 2023

In November last year, I blogged about the travails of a few determined people in an elite community, who decided that they would oppose the vocal opinion within their community, which was to pay bribes for a licence.

In summary, a gated community wanted a bar licence for their club and many in the community submitted meekly to the suggestion that the community should collect contributions from the members which, while individually modest, would amount to a huge sum of money in toto, with which they would pay an agent who would arrange for the licence to be issued. 

A few determined people decided that they would resist such moves and would attempt to get the licence through legitimate means. Overall the government could not be blamed here; they had taken the laudable step of making things easier by putting the application process online and prescribing the preconditions. In the face of resistance, scepticism, and mockery from their neighbours, these determined people went ahead and tried to get their licence legitimately, without an agent. 

What has happened thus far is that the process has been delayed, because the department, in response to the application, has sent a long list of queries they must answer. This checklist seeks them to obtain clearance from every other department on the planet, with several Catch-22 twists and turns; one cannot get clearance from X department without clearance from Y department, and vice versa. The whole idea is to force these people to abandon their efforts and submit to the ‘efficient’ agent, who will get them their licence without pain.

To break through this obvious attempt to block their application, the honest people who are sticking to the straight path, have done two things. First, they have escalated the matter to an honest and transparent senior officer in the department, who has said that most of the questions asked by his juniors are absolutely unnecessary and are not prescribed by law or rules. Second, the group has obtained the information, from those similarly placed who were issued licences to serve liquor, that when they had obtained their licences (whether through agents or directly we do not know), they were never asked for the details and clearances that are now asked from the current applicants.

The determination of the honest few who are doggedly pursuing the application has not flagged. They are in the game now for a long time and they realise that patience is the key. They expect that their patience and persistence will pay off and they will get what they want.

However, it is intriguing and sad to see that these determined men and women are being faced with mockery and derision by their own community brethren, who wag their fingers in their faces and say, ‘See? I told you so. You are not going to get anywhere.’

While I do not appreciate such cynics, I do not think they are habitually corrupt. Many of them, I suppose, are captains of Industry and Commerce – this is not a poor gated community – with plenty of experience in business and the ways of the world. I expect that they are also ruthless in their own business activities, negotiating their welfare with élan and cunning, without breaking the law. 

Why, then, do they disparage the honest who ask simple and direct questions regarding whether they can get any task done by the government without yielding to corruption? 

We probably need to coin a new term to describe their attitude; ‘amoral honesty’. 

The amorally honest are probably clean-handed in a pecuniary sense. They probably do not take bribes and they disapprove of it generally. However, they are not averse to paying bribes, except they wish that the word is not used; ‘handling charges’ or ‘miscellaneous expenses’ are so much less stressful. Whilst they do not approve of corruption, they see it as the way of the world; a necessary step to be taken, to get ahead in life. 

Whilst they see it as inevitable, they hope corruption will one day go away – don’t ask them how – with the passage of time. But till then, they will discourage those who proactively fight corruption, with well practised, age old arguments; honesty causes delay, it is inconvenient, it is counterproductive, and why invite trouble. The more aggressive arguments soon follow – you are impractical, you are idealist (as if that were a crime).

How does one get out of this downward spiralling moral crisis ? 

The only way is to start early. To teach young children that to share, to care, to stand up for what is right, proactively help each other in doing the right things and to value means as much as the ends. We must ensure that nurturing a competitive spirit ought not to spill over into encouraging selfishness and defeating teamwork.

So could there be an anti-corruption curriculum? If so, what are the best pedagogical strategies to imprint the message of a strong moral compass? 

The views are of the author and do not represent an institutional stand. 

T.R. Raghunandan is an Advisor at the Accountability Initiative. 

Also Read: Paper Power: The State Rules by Files, Notices, Circulars, Orders

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