How corrupt is India? It's getting worse, index says

India dropped eight places on  Transparency International's annual corruption list by watchdog, worsening its reputation. 

Parivartan Sharma/Reuters
Placards showing pictures of India's social activist Anna Hazare are seen on a sidewalk during a campaign in support of a controversial anti-corruption bill in New Delhi on Nov. 28.

In a new blow to India's reputation, the rampant corruption that fueled a summer of protest has now shown up more substantially in the annual country-by-country rankings on corruption, with India sliding behind eight countries.

Transparency International’s annual index of Corruption Perception ranks 183 nations on a scale of 0 to a best score of 10. India’s score fell from 3.3 last year to 3.1 this year, bringing its international ranking down from 87th least corrupt to 95th . India’s score has been slowly eroding since 2007, with this year’s downgrade the most dramatic.

This past summer, anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare galvanized throngs of Indians to turn out in favor of strong legislation to clean up the government. A tense 12-day hunger strike by Mr. Hazare eventually forced the government to promise to bring a new bill. 

But the government is slowly drafting the legislation, and Hazare has given a new deadline of Dec. 22 before he starts a new fast.

India seems to be following a script. As noted in the Monitor this summer, rapidly growing countries such as India tend to see a spike in corruption followed by an anti-corruption backlash that ushers in greater transparency and regulation.

"There's not an economy in the world where you have had rapid economic growth and transformation of an economy without a rise – at least for a while – in corruption and inequality," Vivek Dehejia, an economics professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, told the Monitor at the time.

"You can say the growth caused the corruption, and in some sense the corruption leads to its own correction. And if you don't do that, you can get stuck and wind up in a middle-income trap," he added.

Hazare succeeded in putting corruption in the spotlight and pushing for some correction. The Transparency International numbers are derived from surveys that gauge respondents’ perceptions of corruption in a country. The protests this summer no doubt affected those perceptions and are reflected in India’s downgrade on the list.

A string of high-profile corruption scandals – including the loss of roughly $39 billion of public money in a government telecom scam – also has brought the issue to the forefront.

Hazare's team has been less successful in rallying the nation – especially the ruling Congress Party – around his preferred solution.

Hazare backs a bill known as the Jan Lokpal (the citizen's ombudsman bill) that would create a large bureaucracy to watch over most levels of government – including the prime minister. The watchdogs would be given substantial powers to investigate and even punish abuses.

In recent negotiations, Congress officials are continuing to resist putting the prime minister under the authority of the new anticorruption body – something Hazare calls a “betrayal.”

It’s not just the powerful who are resistant to the Jan Lokpal. Some minority leaders expressed suspicion of the mass movement, and some legal experts worry the reforms would create an overly powerful branch of government shielded from accountability.

“When you have to deal with a local policeman, he has a stick to beat you. Now you have a bigger guy with a bigger stick to watch over him – but now you have to deal with him too,” Usha Ramanathan, a legal researcher, told the Monitor. “I don’t want to give anyone that kind of power.”

The Transparency International numbers should give Hazare’s team a boost in making its case for dramatic action.

This year’s global ranking gave top honors to New Zealand and put Somalia in last place. The US clocked in at 24.


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