Corruption in India: I was approached for a bribe

Our correspondent learns first-hand the mechanics of petty bribery in India. Meanwhile, corruption fighter Anna Hazare called off his hunger strike today.

Rajanish Kakade/AP
Indian anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare speaks during the second day of his hunger strike, in Mumbai, India. Hazare called off his hunger strike Wednesday but said that he would travel the country and campaign against the government after Parliament's lower house approved an anti-corruption legislation that he called weak.

As New Delhi gears up for New Year's celebrations, the police are rolling out roadblocks.

In the United States, roadblocks are a common way to check for drivers who have had one too many drinks on New Years, but for police in Delhi, these roadblocks often translate into "how much will they pay to get out of this?"

And if the fight over the current anticorruption bill in Parliament and the recent hunger strike by activist Anna Hazare are any indicators, the situation is not likely to improve any time soon without the help of hundreds of thousands of Indians pushing back against the system of bribery where they can.

Mr. Hazare had inspired millions of Indians to protest against corruption this summer, and began a three-day hunger strike this week to press for tougher action against corruption in the country's bureaucracy. His fast aligned with the Indian Parliament negotiating an antigraft bill that would set up an ombudsman's office to investigate embezzling, influence peddling, and other forms of official theft.

However, both the hunger strike and bill have fallen short of their objectives. After a high fever and poor crowd turn out, Hazare called off it off a day early. A compromise bill was approved by Parliament’s lower house Tuesday, and is likely to pass the upper house Wednesday. If it does, it could establish an independent body at the central and state government levels to investigate charges of corruption.

But Hazare and other opposition groups say the bill is weak, and will do little to truly tackle the country’s corruption. Moreover, there is no guarantee that the agency, which is responsible for monitoring this bill, will not itself become corrupt.

According to Transparency International, 54 percent of Indians paid a bribe in the past year, and the organization ranked India 95 out of 183 countries in its Corruption Perception Index for 2011. Given these statistics, winning the daily battle of graft that has bled India of some $128 billion in the past decade is nothing short of herculean.

But a recent encounter with a Delhi traffic cop gave me a little insight into how ordinary citizens can start fighting.

On Christmas Eve, an Indian friend and I were parking, near a packed shopping area, when a cop looking for a little extra cash approached us. Our crime? The tinted windows on my friend’s car were too dark.

Being a hothead from the American South, I was irate as it was clear to me the cop was just looking for money.

However, my friend who is known for his prudence in these kinds of situations had a wiser approach. He simply told the policeman to give him the ticket. The cop paused, and then let him go.

When the cop walked away, I asked my friend why we got out of the ticket.

"You must understand the economics of bribery," he said. "It's Christmas Eve, the place is packed, and it’s high-time for making a quick buck. Every minute counts. In the time it would take him to write me a ticket, he could be making hundreds of rupees."

As India struggles to tackle corruption with new laws and key arrests, ordinary Indians like my friend can make a difference by understanding the system of bribery pushing back where they can.

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