Corruption, and the fight against it, has been making headlines in India consistently for the last four months. Led by Anna Hazare, a social activist, the call for passing the Jan Lokpal (anti-corruption) bill has transformed the political consciousness of tens of thousands of Indians who reluctantly accept corruption as part of their culture. For these new converts to activism, the call is seen as a second freedom struggle – following the one that gained India its independence in 1947. The bill, basically drafted by people who could be termed “neutral” or without any political affiliations, is seen widely as a tool to fight corruption that has India consistently ranking near the mid-way mark in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. India came in at 95 out of 183 countries in 2011, with a rank of 3.5 on a 10-point scale, where a zero means that the country is perceived as highly corrupt.
At the time of writing this article, the bill is yet to be passed, and Hazare’s core team has gone into a huddle over next steps. Even still, this anti-corruption drive is striking in its reach and response rate, touching thousands of young Indians from all socio-economic groups in significant numbers. While some would argue that corruption continues unabated, the Internet, social media and mobile technology have silently contributed to creating awareness and to the mobilization of public opinion.
Impact of Corruption on the Poor
Like mobile telephones, corruption is ubiquitous in India, spanning the socio-economic spectrum and age/gender demographics. Its impact on the poor is active and passive. The urban poor, existing in what can be termed an “extra-legal space,” regularly pay money for living in slums that are not legal and accessing water and electricity through illegal connections. A study on corruption in India, conducted by the Centre for Media Studies (CMS) together with Transparency International India, indicates that the poor pay over INR8,000 million (~US$154m) in bribes to access 11 essential public services that include the public distribution system (PDS), education, health, electricity, housing and water supply, among other .
Far more insidious is the passive corruption the urban poor are subjected to when they are unaware of pertinent government subsidies and aid. According to a report, a mere 15% of public funds set aside for poverty alleviation actually reach the poor. A government-sponsored study on the efficacy of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) found corruption in program implementation where workers worked for one day and were paid wages for one day; however, records showed them as having worked for 33 days, with the wages for the remaining 32 days being misappropriated. On closer study, job cards, which all workers are issued under the program, were found to have fake entries, and often in the possession of the local panchayat members. Workers were threatened not to complain about the fake entries lest they lose even the few days of work and wages that trickled down to them. Food security, which the government attempts to deliver to below poverty line (BPL) households through its PDS, is another area that needs attention. The poor often need to pay bribes to acquire these ration cards that state that they are below poverty line. Pilferage, theft and adulteration complete the picture, and the poor remain food-insecure despite government budgets to ensure otherwise.
A Silent Crusade: Technology-Driven Solutions
In 2005, the Indian Government passed the Right to Information Act in a bid to promote transparency, whereby citizens could access information controlled by public departments. While citizens were now armed, they were still unaware of what information they should seek, where to access this information and how they could leverage it to fight corruption. Simultaneously, the government’s efforts to computerize government departments as well as digitize documentation and records achieved some scale. While not all government departments and documents are digitized today, online access to forms and information is now increasingly available. As an offshoot of this growing digitization, it has become more difficult for files to go ‘missing’ – these misplaced files often carried a price tag of INR100 (~US$2) or more for the file to be ‘found.’ A more recent, and substantially ambitious, government initiative, the Unique Identification (UID) Aadhaar, is expected to have an impact on corruption at the “last mile.” It will be linked to the government’s social schemes related to the provision of subsidized products and services, and will make it difficult for these benefits to be re-routed to recipients other than the beneficiaries.
Government departments need not be the only stakeholders to adopt technology in order to fight corruption. NGOs and other civil society groups can also leverage technology to carry out more effective social audits. In a scenario without computerization, data rests in many different government files and registers. In the case of a program like the NREGA, the person conducting the social audit has to access each register to arrive at the likely wage a worker has received. She then has to go to each household to find out if they were really paid this amount. Social audits, therefore, are cumbersome and difficult to conduct on a large scale. Having said that, there has been an impact on corruption in areas where social audits have been conducted.
A Stanford University Initiative, Program on Liberation Technology, is examining ways in which mobile phones, as well as other technology, can help fight corruption and aid social audits. One of the projects focuses on using basic short messaging service (SMS) technology to empower the poor by letting them know what, as per public record, they have supposedly received (i.e., a road in their locality, food grains, pensions etc under their ration card). This empowers them with facts, so that if there is misappropriation of funds, they can seek redressal through official channels with a complaint backed by evidence. They could also use this information to gain justice on moral grounds, and if they find others in a similar situation, even fight collectively by staging a protest.
The Stanford project is likely to move to the pilot stage in the Indian states of Bihar and Andhra Pradesh. Says S. Vivek, who manages the program, “A team is starting to build the basic technology to store and disseminate public records. We will start with programs such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in India and expand coverage over the next few years.” The team plans to implement the model in randomly selected villages for two years and test its impact on corruption. Vivek adds that there are ways to extend this service to include a feedback mechanism, where the recipient of the SMS can reply to confirm or deny having received the benefit. It is also possible to provide contact details of responsible officials, as well as to a redressal center or mechanism such as an NGO.
The Bangladesh Experience
Anna Hazare’s drive proved that there is power in numbers and that technology can help mobilize these numbers very effectively. Likewise, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) has seen similar success with being able to catalyze important institutional and policy reforms. TIB saw a need to sustain engagement with people and to create a platform for such sustained engagement. Its Youth Engagement and Support (YES) program has mobilized over 5,500 young volunteers to fight corruption across 60 centers in Bangladesh. By using social media, these groups actively engage with their peers and enable TI’s anti-corruption message to echo across the country. TI has adopted this model globally.
While social media helps mobilize a collective voice, deeper impact to fight corruption, says TI’s Executive Director Iftekhar Zaman, comes from the Bangladesh Government’s efforts to move to technology-led governance. For instance, e-governance programs, such as Access to Information (A2I) and an e-procurement program, help reduce direct interaction between the service provider and the beneficiary, thereby reducing opportunities for bribes or political influence in approval of bids or tenders. While remaining enthusiastic about the power of technology to add strength to the anti-corruption movement, Zaman believes that, finally, the will of the people will decide the success of the anti-corruption drive. On December 9, 2011, celebrated as Anti-Corruption Day, he wrote in the December issue of Forum: “It is the people who have to make their voice and demand stronger so that our political leaders deliver their commitments without fear or favor.”
Computerization, such as that of NREGA, has made it tough to fudge information. Yet, new forms of corruption continue to emerge. Vivek shares that due to increased monitoring, workers are paid their wages but only after a couple of months. Those in control leverage the funds to earn interest income during these two months. Vivek also speaks of clever uses of technology to take small but effective steps to fight corruption. He cites an example in Tamil Nadu where the field officer has to send an SMS indicating the number of women and men who are at work every morning to the collector’s office. This, he says, makes spot checks easy and effective. In the fight against corruption, technology is not the complete answer, but it can strengthen an existing anti-corruption process by making it easier, more efficient and cost effective. If technology can get more people to buy in to the fight against corruption, success is more likely within reach.