India’s Corruption Sparks Do-It-Yourself Innovation

As has been the case with the uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa earlier in the year, India’s mass demonstrations against corruption are being widely hailed as a successful mobilization of citizenry for a common good. But the movement is far from a unified endeavor.

“People power is bigger than everything, and this movement is bigger than the government and its ministers,” said Anna Hazare, the social activist and Gandhian whose hunger strikes aimed at establishing a ‘Jan Lokpal’, or people’s ombudsman have garnered international attention. “This fire will spread.” And spread it has.

Corruption has long been a fact of life in the world’s largest democracy. But the last year and a half have seen a host of large scale scandals above and beyond the normal fray. From a telecoms 2G licensing scam that has been estimated to have cost the Indian government upwards of $30 billion to poor planning and non-transparent procurement deals leading up to the Commonwealth games in Delhi, corruption was front page news. Then in mid-March, the on-line whistle blower outfit Wikileaks, published a cable which described how a senior leader from the ruling Congress party showed a US embassy official “chests of cash” to pay off MPs ahead of a vote over a controversial nuclear deal. These events set the stage for Anna Hazare and his national throng of supporters.

However, Anna Hazare’s efforts to establish a Lokpal have not been universally met with acceptance. Preferring to act within, rather than circumvent, India’s governmental institutions some civic groups and pundits liken his tactics to hijacking the country’s democratic process. After all, India already has developed some of the world’s most innovative transparency mechanisms, including its 2005 Right to Information Act and a Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), notes Global Integrity, a US based watchdog group. The organization suggests that a better strategy might be to try and bolster the CVC and strengthen its political independence.

The Right to Information Act (RTI) in particular has been a useful tool for civic groups. For example, in Gajapati ,the Civil Society Organization (CSO) Visionaries of Creative Action for Liberation and Progress (VICALP) used the law to help several hundred women procure their “job cards”, an obligation from the government to be granted work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.

The VICALP example demonstrates how CSOs have worked at the grassroots level to create tangible victories for citizens while the hunger strikes of Anna Hazare show the galvanizing force of people power to raise awareness and motivate citizens. Both are essential to cleaning up corruption.

The civil society however is not the only domain for anti-graft activities. The Chief Minister of Kerala, Oommen Chandy, has installed a webcam in his office in a move to make his slice of government more transparent. The webcam feed is made viewable to the public via the Chief Minister’s website. “Instead of taking action against corruption, I believe that we have to create an atmosphere where everything should be in a transparent way,” said Mr. Chandy. “The people must know everything.”

Whether using a self-made bully pulpit to press for institutional change, using pro-transparency legislation to benefit the poor, or championing reform from within the existing government structure, the approaches to fighting corruption share a sense of creativity and adaptability. The innovations pouring forth from CSOs, individuals and now, even government officials are a welcome sign that the problem of corruption is being taken seriously in one of the World’s fastest growing economies. The future of India’s anti-corruption movement may see the birth of more cohesive broad-based coalitions. But for now, groups and individuals are using whatever is at their disposable to affect change, seemingly with the motto “whatever works”.

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