Why Doesn’t India See Corruption as a Human Rights Issue?

More than half a billion people voted in India’s giant general election. Many were, no doubt, motivated by the rise of the anti-corruption movement in recent years and the emergence of the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi party as a political force.

Corruption is regarded as an obstacle to growth and therefore to development.

Statistics bear this out. Compared to other major democratic economies, India has the lowest development indicators (based on the Human Development Index) and the worst corruption profile (according to Transparency International). In addition, recent World Bank calculations may have ranked India as the third-largest (PPP-adjusted) economy in the world but hundreds of million of Indians still live in poverty, more than any other nation on earth.

India’s increasingly wealthy and aspirant middle classes have reacted vociferously and electorally, but the disenfranchised poor continue to be trapped in grinding poverty because they are obliged to pay out bribes for services to which they are entitled.

Entitled is the key word here.

Backhanders divert scarce income away from things like food, water, education, health, shelter – things that Indians have a right to expect and to enjoy. These are not just worthy ideals, but hard facts.

India is not only a signatory to the UN Convention Against Corruption (ratified in May 2011), but it also signed up to one of the key human rights treaties, the 1966 International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, a legally-binding treaty that guarantees a wide range of rights, including labour rights, the right to health, to education and to an adequate standard of living.

Simply put, India has a legal obligation, under international treaty law, to protect, provide and promote economic, social and cultural rights for all its people. By failing to act firmly to stamp out corruption in public office, India is failing in its obligations.

Corruption denies human rights to Indians. So why isn’t corruption presented as a human rights violation?

If anti-corruption campaigners adopted a human rights narrative, in addition to the current frame of corruption as a hindrance to growth, it might help to galvanise even more support. After all, this general election’s record turnout of 66% shows that Indians at least take their right to vote seriously, so perhaps we can assume they believe in this whole raft of other rights and fundamental freedoms too.

It’s fair to say the world’s largest democracy does enjoy an extensive catalogue of human and civil rights legislation, both domestic and international. However, India has also passed several laws that raise serious questions about its credibility in this area.

Two in particular, the 1958 Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and the 1978 Public Safety Act (PSA) have led to egregious violations of human rights – including thousands of deaths – in the name of national security. These have mainly been in the disputed Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir where India says it is fighting a Muslim insurgency, against Maoist groups in central India and in the volatile northeast. Security forces have sweeping powers to crack down on opponents and detain individuals under these laws – and substantial impunity too.

While international organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International decry these violations, within India opposition seems more muted. The national security argument is strong and India’s vibrant civil society seems unwilling – or unable – to acknowledge that its military carries out human rights abuses against its own people. India’s social contract, agreed by both its government and population, seems to be that human rights are important but the priorities are national security and economic growth.

Perhaps it is this lack of a human rights vocabulary that also prevents Indians from seeing corruption as the violation of rights that it is. It might be a powerful narrative but one that India is not well-placed to articulate. Furthermore if corruption were to be presented in a human rights framework it might force Indians to look more closely – and more uncomfortably – at other actions carried out in their name.

Sharing Stories to Tackle Corruption in India

Today a senior citizen in Andhra Pradesh state in India admitted to paying bribes to local officials so they would not pursue court cases against him regarding an unrenewed land lease. Nothing newsworthy about that, true. But this gentleman ‘fessed up to graft on the website http://www.ipaidabribe.com and he is one of more than twenty five thousand Indians who have owned up online and gone public about corruption. Between them they have admitted to under-the-counter payments totaling more than Rs 71 Crore (1 crore = Rs10m) or almost US$12m, which in India is still a lot of money. The website has had more than 4.5m visits.

Corruption is a major theme of the country’s mammoth general election, taking place right now. While Congress and the BJP will slug it out to be the biggest party, the AAP (Aam Aadmi Party or Common Man Party) is the protest vote of choice and its main campaigning issue is corruption.
Young ex-pat Indians I recently spoke with despair that their country’s standing in the world – both morally and economically – is damaged by corrupt practices that seem to pervade every aspect of public life.

India has, of course, enjoyed rapid economic growth in recent years and this has itself fuelled both their frustration and the anti-corruption campaign. With rising incomes, millions more Indians have ascended to the ranks of the middle class – with that status comes higher expectations of governance. But it’s advances in technology that have really allowed India’s modern idealism to flourish because the Indians who have benefited most from rising incomes are largely younger, well-educated, English-speaking and tech-savvy. They can easily access the internet to see that people in many other countries do not suffer the same realities of ingrained corruption that Indians must endure.
The tech-driven India Against Corruption campaign of recent years has succeeded in strong-arming the government into promising to act and one of the key figures in the anti-corruption movement was Arvind Kejriwal, who now leads the AAP. This is already a success.

But while technology has been a catalyst for India’s anti-corruption campaign, it is also a limit.

And that’s because of the digital divide. Figures from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India show that in 2011, the country had 75 telephone subscriptions (both mobile and landline) for every 100 people, which was then in line with China but lagged well behind other major democratic economies. And that 75% national figure masked huge disparities: urban subscription rates were around 165% but in rural areas the figure was only around 35%.
Internet access shows an even starker divide. In December 2010, around 48% of India’s telephony subscribers were using their phones to access the internet but only 1.6% of the population had internet subscriptions. The vast majority of Indians, then, are not online.
So, the apparent popularity of ipaidabribe.com is less impressive when you think of the enormous size of India’s population and its equally enormous problem of graft. And the political success of India’s anti-corruption movement may be limited when so much bribery goes unreported and so many Indians may not even realize they have a right not to pay bribes and a mechanism by which to expose corruption.
But maybe, slowly, change can come.
The urban, tech-wielding elites are very vocal and well-connected to networks outside of India. They are making corruption more of a story internationally and at home – India’s gratifyingly free and vocal press has jumped on to this issue as a ratings winner.
In turn, satellite TV – which is much more pervasive than the internet – allows poorer, unconnected Indians to realize that they do not have to put up with the palm-greasing status quo, which helps the anti-corruption movement to grow further. And as mobile internet rates rise – and incomes rise – more Indians will join the ranks of the middle class, their expectations will rise accordingly and they will be able to connect with like-minded others.

Let us hope this bottom-up pressure can persist and reach a critical mass. Even though the AAP seems to lack the policies and experience to govern, with sufficient votes, it could be an effective voice for real and lasting change – people-powered change – in the world’s largest democracy.

Sharing Stories to tackle Corruption in India

Today a senior citizen in Andhra Pradesh state in India admitted to paying bribes to local officials so they would not pursue court cases against him regarding an unrenewed land lease. Nothing newsworthy about that, true. But this gentleman ‘fessed up to graft on the website http://www.ipaidabribe.com and he is one of more than twenty five thousand Indians who have owned up online and gone public about corruption. Between them they have admitted to under-the-counter payments totaling more than Rs 71 Crore (1 crore = Rs10m) or almost US$12m, which in India is still a lot of money. The website has had more than 4.5m visits.

Corruption is a major theme of the country’s mammoth general election, taking place right now. While Congress and the BJP will slug it out to be the biggest party, the AAP (Aam Aadmi Party or Common Man Party) is the protest vote of choice and its main campaigning issue is corruption.
Young ex-pat Indians I recently spoke with despair that their country’s standing in the world – both morally and economically – is damaged by corrupt practices that seem to pervade every aspect of public life.

India has, of course, enjoyed rapid economic growth in recent years and this has itself fuelled both their frustration and the anti-corruption campaign. With rising incomes, millions more Indians have ascended to the ranks of the middle class – with that status comes higher expectations of governance. But it’s advances in technology that have really allowed India’s modern idealism to flourish because the Indians who have benefited most from rising incomes are largely younger, well-educated, English-speaking and tech-savvy. They can easily access the internet to see that people in many other countries do not suffer the same realities of ingrained corruption that Indians must endure.
The tech-driven India Against Corruption campaign of recent years has succeeded in strong-arming the government into promising to act and one of the key figures in the anti-corruption movement was Arvind Kejriwal, who now leads the AAP. This is already a success.

But while technology has been a catalyst for India’s anti-corruption campaign, it is also a limit.

And that’s because of the digital divide. Figures from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India show that in 2011, the country had 75 telephone subscriptions (both mobile and landline) for every 100 people, which was then in line with China but lagged well behind other major democratic economies. And that 75% national figure masked huge disparities: urban subscription rates were around 165% but in rural areas the figure was only around 35%.
Internet access shows an even starker divide. In December 2010, around 48% of India’s telephony subscribers were using their phones to access the internet but only 1.6% of the population had internet subscriptions. The vast majority of Indians, then, are not online.
So, the apparent popularity of ipaidabribe.com is less impressive when you think of the enormous size of India’s population and its equally enormous problem of graft. And the political success of India’s anti-corruption movement may be limited when so much bribery goes unreported and so many Indians may not even realize they have a right not to pay bribes and a mechanism by which to expose corruption.
But maybe, slowly, change can come.
The urban, tech-wielding elites are very vocal and well-connected to networks outside of India. They are making corruption more of a story internationally and at home – India’s gratifyingly free and vocal press has jumped on to this issue as a ratings winner.
In turn, satellite TV – which is much more pervasive than the internet – allows poorer, unconnected Indians to realize that they do not have to put up with the palm-greasing status quo, which helps the anti-corruption movement to grow further. And as mobile internet rates rise – and incomes rise – more Indians will join the ranks of the middle class, their expectations will rise accordingly and they will be able to connect with like-minded others.

Let us hope this bottom-up pressure can persist and reach a critical mass. Even though the AAP seems to lack the policies and experience to govern, with sufficient votes, it could be an effective voice for real and lasting change – people-powered change – in the world’s largest democracy.