The Indian Omertà: Corruption and the Code of Silence

It was Mario Puzo’s book “The Godfather” and related readings on the Sicilian Mafia that made familiar to me the term “Omertà“. It referred to the restriction imposed on any member of the Mafia on maintaining silence even in the face of third-degree interrogation by the police. Any infraction of this code was punishable with death. This practice, prevalent in the Sicilian gangs, spread to American shores when waves of Italian migrants landed up in the USA in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and frustrated efforts to get at the real “godfathers” of illicit operations ranging from bootlegging and prostitution to narcotics. As I reflect on the phenomenon of corruption in India, I am struck by the very similar code of silence that prevails in transactions in India which are mediated by corruption in its various forms.

Let us recognise that corruption in India is a “womb to tomb” cycle. It begins while the child is still in her mother’s womb. Just imagine — if the child, like the mythical Ashtavakra, were blessed with the gift of imbibing every conversation even before she was born, she would hear the medical personnel at the public hospital asking the mother and her relatives to part with money to avail of the maternity facilities in the hospital. Thereafter, the karmic cycle of corruption unfolds at every stage of her existence, from the bribe paid for getting the birth certificate to the “donation” extracted at the time of school and, subsequently, college admission. The lifetime investment in the corruption machine takes place when the person has to grease her way into a job in the public services. Thereafter, the public functionary is engaged in recovering her past costs as well as providing for her (and her future generations’) material comforts, through means, legal and illegal. Finally, the cycle is complete when corruption oversees the issue of the death certificate and the process of transfer of assets to the next of kin.

What is noteworthy of the “corruption chakra” is the spectrum of silence that covers its functioning. To paraphrase Portia in the Merchant of Venice —

“The quality of corruption is not strain’d,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes…”

Both the bribe-giver and the bribe-taker are aiming to participate in a “win-win” situation. Let us take the example of admissions to the pre-primary class in any private school. Every school thrives on the anxiety of parents to secure admission to a good school for the next thirteen years by charging a hefty entrance fee. Since this is not permitted by the state education authorities, the practice is to pay most of or the entire amount in cash, often through a broker, to the school. Both parties are willing accomplices in this generation of black money. Or take the case of any real estate transaction in India. The quantum of “black money” payment outweighs by far the cheque or “white money” paid. Try to insist on full payment by cheque or bank transfer and you get either a polite shove-off from the other party or a reduced offer. In the case of public functionaries, the procedure can vary from a weekly payoff to the superior (hence the term “hafta“) to case by case transactions, as in bribes for procuring driving licences, either through touts (euphemistically called “driving schools“) or through direct payments, to even part payment with the promise of future revenue deliveries, as in the auctioning of government posts. At the highest level, the cornering of scarce natural resources (land, minerals, etc.) requires a continuous, smooth working relationship between the benefactor and the bidder. Implicit in all these transactions is the “honour among thieves“. Once the trust is violated, either party takes steps to get the other party implicated, either through an anti-corruption trap or through anonymous/third party applications/PILs highlighting misdeeds of the concerned offending party.

A simple formula has been devised by Klitgaard (1998)[1] to describe the extent of corruption in a system:

C = M+D-A, or Corruption equals  Monopoly plus Discretion minus Accountability.

A socialist economy will see the existence of monopolies in a wide range of activities, ranging from coal and steel to telephones and motor cars. Given the limited number of producers, there will inevitably be a mismatch between supply and demand. The person allocating the good then has the discretion to favour one person over another, generally for a monetary consideration, or even on the basis of caste and kin relationships. A hybrid “socialist” economy like India’s, with its entry barriers in various sectors, develops its own version of the applicability of this formula. Industrial licensing for the private sector in various areas from the 1950s onwards gave the bureaucrat (and politician) control over who got the licence. The more recent example is the mechanism for allocation of coal blocks to end-users, recently struck down by the Supreme Court. With the state having the exclusive right of disposal of coal blocks, there was considerable discretion in the allocation process. While there may or may not have been mala fide in the process, the arbitrariness of the procedure attracted judicial criticism. Monopolies can be reduced through the introduction of competitive processes. The telecom and automobile sectors in India are examples of how choice has empowered the consumer and removed influence peddling and gathering of economic rent in these sectors. Not that monopolies can be totally wished away. Just think of the police force or the natural resource extraction (coal, metals, petroleum, etc.) sectors. The checks on these monopolies operate through the limiting of discretionary powers through use of technology and transparent bidding processes. Enabling filing of criminal complaints online removes the discretionary power of the police officer to register (or not register) the complaint. Granting extraction rights through an impartial bidding process ensures that the party giving the greatest economic value to society wins the bid. Of course, no system can be immune. Just think of the goodwill money paid to the police constable who comes for the passport verification and the on-money paid to the person who delivers the cooking gas cylinders. But, to a considerable extent, the enforcement of accountability in actions and the increasing use of mobile/online payments (think mobile wallets) can curtail the scope for discretion even further.

In the final analysis, it is the enforcement of accountability that acts as the greatest check on corruption. But as long as there is complicit collusion in the act of bribery between the giver and taker, it will be difficult to reduce corruption. This requires action on three fronts:

  1. Procedures for service delivery have to be clear to the service recipient. She should be aware of the time within which the service is to be given, the exact cost of the service and the redressal mechanism available to her in the event of service delivery failure. Public agencies need to specify these procedures on their websites and use mass media to educate consumers on their rights.
  2. The consumer has to assert her right to timely service delivery at the officially approved cost. It is here that the code of silence has to be broken. Where there is overcharging for services or there are attempts to delay service provision in the absence of sweeteners, social media should be extensively used to highlight instances. Websites like com seek to provide a forum for publicising corruption in the delivery of different public services.
  3. Supervisory levels in public agencies need to monitor service delivery systematically. Any deviation from the set norms should be analysed and, where there is evidence of wilful, mischievous intent on the part of the service delivery provider, she should be penalised.





[1] Klitgaard, Robert — International Cooperation Against Corruption (Finance & Development,  March 1998)

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