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Really, Mr.Bhagwati?

February 23, 2011 5 comments

Why do foreigners of Indian origin (like Prof.Bhagwati) think they know much more about India – and are much better than we desi Indians?

I wonder why is it so difficult to understand that 'corruption is a global pheomenon' - because Desert Bloc political systems are now a global phenomenon. (Cartoon by Kirtish Bhatt; courtesy -  pressvarta.wall.fm).

I wonder why is it so difficult to understand that ‘corruption is a global phenomenon’ – because Desert Bloc political systems are now a global phenomenon. (Cartoon by Kirtish Bhatt – Dec. 10. 2010; courtesy – pressvarta.wall.fm).

Anxious are the ignorant

Recently, at a book-promotion event in Kolkatta,

A Britisher in the audience offered that Indians were more honest about being corrupt, naming Mayawati as a favourite, provoking titters all around. (via The Telegraph – Kolkata| Metro | When corruption is a daily habit)

The Britisher may be more right than most Indians imagine.

Mind games, verbal cues

Discussing ‘corruption-in-India’ a common belief is that yesterday was better. Data, facts, statistics, events, and other corroboration tools are for the birds. When a sentence starts with, ‘these days …’ or its Hindi equivalent ‘आज के ज़माने में’or when ‘It is not like olden days …’ or ‘पहले ज़माने में …’ you know what is coming your way.

Professor Jagdish Bhagwati, a Nobel prize candidate, for instance, believes that the Indian governance in ‘the 1950s had a civil service, and a political class, that were the envy of the world’.

Really, Mr.Bhagwati? Is that true?

Between 1934 and 1940, the Sugar Syndicate functioned as an association of millers largely based in northern India and made repeated attempts to help its members “manage” the market. The price of sugarcane was fixed by the government itself, while the price of sugar was controlled by a Syndicate. In September 1940, Purushothamdas Thakurdas wrote to Rajendra Prasad thanking him for his help, and hoping such help would be extended in future also: “We (Indian Sugar Syndicate) are extremely thankful to you for having taken up the cause of the industry and arranging meetings for the purpose of bringing home to the growers and cane cooperative societies that the problems facing the industry were as much their problems.”

Thapar went on to add: “In May 1940, under instructions from B M Birla, I had sent you a cheque for Rs 5,000 to enable you to help the sugar industry in whatever manner you might think best. I have advised the ISS office to send you another cheque for Rs 5,000 which I hope you will be receiving very soon.”

Was this a bribe? Was this payment for “lobbying”? How much would Rs 10,000 in 1940 be today? Can we accuse, with hindsight, that India’s first president was in the pay of the sugar cartel? Not necessarily, after all Rajendrababu was paid by cheque and all this was placed on record, and is now available in the archives of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. So, it was not a “bribe”, but a regular payment for services rendered — as an intermediary. The word “lobbyist” is more recent! (from Sanjaya Baru: Cartels and competition).

Desert Bloc polity creates modern day 'polity'. Indian outrage is partly because they have known better - Bharattantra. (Cartoon by Kirtish Bhatt ; courtesy - apnablog.in).

Desert Bloc polity creates modern day ‘polity’. Indian outrage is partly because they have known better – Bharattantra. (Cartoon by Kirtish Bhatt ; courtesy – apnablog.in).

A biographer of Nehru writes,

Even before taking office as head of the interim government in September 1946, Nehru lashed out at what he called “the colossal corruption and nepotism that are rampant everywhere.””Corrupt people have to be swept away by a broomstick,” he cried while campaigning for his Congress Party in late 1945. The attack on corruption began in earnest after Nehru became interim prime minister … (from Comrades at odds: the United States and India, 1947-1964 By Andrew Jon Rotter).

Dr.Rajendra Prasad was equally concerned about corruption. Soon after Independence, he wrote, as the President of India, to Prime Minister JL Nehru about how corruption would ‘prove a nail in the coffin of the Congress’. Or another case, during India’s de-colonization campaign, in

the Raj era when a Congress worker kept aside money collected for the party. He returned it only after a shakedown by Gandhiji himself. (via The Telegraph – Kolkata| Metro | When corruption is a daily habit).

After all, how many remember that

Nehru’s cabinet minister Rao Shiv Bahadur Singh was jailed as early as in 1949 for accepting a mere 25,000 rupees for forging a mining document. (India’s free-market mantra-DAWN.COM).

Of course, the writer does not adjust for inflation. Based on a gold index, the value of 1949 Rs.25,000 is now (January 2011) more than a crore of Indian Rupees.

Not exactly a small sum.

Looking back in wonder

In the early fifties, Nehru set up a Corruption Commission with JB Kripalani, Paul Appleby (a Ford Foundation consultant), AD Gorwala (a retired ICS officer) as members.They submitted various reports – Report on the Efficient Conduct of State Enterprises (A. D. Gorwala), 1951; Public Administration in India-Report of a Survey (Paul H. Appleby), 1953; Railway Corruption Enquiry Committee (J. B. Kriplani), 1955 et al. The Great Gift of the British to India, railways was not only a vast scrap heap of metal, but a den of corruption. Corruption and safety took another 50 years – by the 1990’s, by when the entire railway system was modernized and computerized.

Corruption in India has seriously reduced in railways, telephones, banks, industrial policy. What we have are now fewer bigger scams. (Cartoon by Kirtish Bhat; courtesy - bamulahija.blogspot.com.).

Corruption in India has seriously reduced in railways, telephones, banks, industrial policy. What we have are now fewer bigger scams. (Cartoon by Kirtish Bhat; courtesy – bamulahija.blogspot.com.).

This was followed up by a committee headed by K. Santhanam, an MP. This committee’s report, the Santhanam Committee Report (1964) suggested institutional mechanisms and process-related steps to fight corruption. The Santhanam Committee recommendations of 1962-1964, led the Government of India to set up the Central Vigilance Commission in 1964.

But much before this, way back in 1928, a much-less famous man then, wrote

Corruption will be out one day, however much one may try to conceal it; and the public can, as its right and duty, in every case of justifiable suspicion, call its servants to strict account, dismiss them, sue them in a law court or appoint an arbitrator or inspector to scrutinise their conduct, as it likes. – Mahatma Gandhi in Young India (1928).

Yesterday, Once More?

So, Bhagwati-bhau, corruption was an old problem – that continues. Of late, what has happened is that Indian media has certainly become more vocal. Maybe you should check if Kuznet’s Curve applies to corruption also – in its many avatars.

Before you give uninformed opinions, it is a good idea to take a 2ndlook.

While discussing ‘corruption-in-India’ a common belief is that yesterday was better. No data, facts, statistics, events, and other corroboration tools are offered to support this statement.When a sentence starts with, ‘these days …’ or its Hindi equivalent ‘आज के ज़माने में’ or when ‘It is not like olden days …’ or ‘पहले ज़माने में …’ you know what is coming your way.


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