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.