Diana Jue-Rajasingh

The Grey Area: What Does it Mean to be “Corrupt”?

Posted in Fulbright, India, Traveling by Diana on October 18, 2012

I spent the entire afternoon in a few coffee shops, typing up my notes from the past three meetings. The first was with the ex-IAS officer, the second was with a developer, and the third was with the principal of a secondary school (if that sounds unimpressive, let me just tell you that he wears many hats). Each person provided a very different perspective on the IAS and Indian bureaucracy. Each perspective was tainted by experience (working as an officer or working with officers) and personal background (religion, caste, etc). By the end of these interviews, my head was spinning, but I think I’m piecing together an interesting puzzle about bureaucrats here. There is a lot more for me to learn, and perhaps these “findings” are somewhat naïve, but I think I’m moving along.

I’ve been noticing that everyday folk – the public – have a really simplistic understanding of IAS officers. When I tell locals about my research topic, most reply, “All IAS officers are corrupt!” This is the image that the media – often paid for by the private sector – paint of IAS officers in “masala papers” (more or less every Indian paper except, perhaps, The Hindu). And, yes, there are officers who are definitely corrupt. Hopefully they end up in jail. On the other side of the spectrum, there are really great, selfless officers who do amazing work. You don’t hear about them much because there aren’t many of them, and the media doesn’t think that officers doing what they’re supposed to do makes for great stories.

In most cases, though, what is “corrupt” and what is “clean” is really blurry. I don’t think that most people really know what they mean when they use either term. The reality is that IAS officers are hard-pressed from all sides – their political bosses who basically determine where they’re posted in the state, senior bureaucrats, the courts/judiciary, the legislative committee, and the common people who can take up a case against IAS officers. One person I talked with said: “At the moment, an IAS officer has his hands tied behind his back, is bounded, and is told to run a marathon.”

Yes, IAS officers are supposed to do social good as administrators, but sometimes that social good is personal political/financial/lifestyle suicide. Like all thinking people, most IAS officers do not willingly throw themselves under buses. I don’t think they aspired to be martyrs for the social good. They watch their own backs, too, to make sure they please their bosses, provide for their families, and, when they retire, have a “clean” name and get some good postings.

As a result, many IAS officers are incredibly indecisive and suffer from “policy paralysis.” Even if they’re “supposed” to do something by law, there are local forces that may influence them more directly than the law. I’ve been hearing stories of IAS officers telling people to take them to court, and I wonder if that’s a way for them to do what they’re supposed to do. They just need that direct, personalized order to do it and to not succumb to whatever that local force is (but alas, this is just speculation).

Other IAS officers will take decisions, but along the way, they might take a bribe or two. I wouldn’t necessarily assume that they take bribes for mere personal gain, though. Rather, taking a bribe might be a way to mitigate personal risk – a security, in a way. The rationale is: Well, if this decision is going to hurt me, then at least I got a house out of it. This truly says something about the rewards for being a good, clean, hardworking, public servant of integrity. Right. There really don’t seem to be any of significance – no incentive to be “clean,” just punishment if you’re doing something that some watchdog is unhappy with.

I don’t condone “corruption,” but I’m still a bit confused about what corruption is. I’m not sure what kind of IAS officer is “better” or “worse” or “corrupt” or “clean” – the one who doesn’t take bribes but doesn’t do anything, or the one who takes bribes but does something (I also acknowledge that these categories are not clearly cut and that some take bribes but don’t do anything!). I’d like to say that making a decision is better than not making a decision, regardless of the route taken to get there, but I don’t want to go all Machiavellian either.

More puzzle pieces to come.


One Response

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  1. xyz said, on August 1, 2013 at 11:22 pm

    excellent article..very thoughtful

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