The Beginning of Corruption (“The Statesman”)

The Statesman

Sunday, 18 December 2011


The Beginning of Corruption
When Yes And No Are Engulfed In Uncertainty

By Martin Kämpchen

THIS whole year we heard and read so much about corruption in public life that we can hardly react to new revelations, like most recently to the ghastly negligence of the fire prevention services which caused 94 deaths in Kolkata’s AMRI hospital. The rules are all in place, but we either do not know them, or do not care to know them, or we blatantly ignore them, led either by mental sloth or greed for unlawful gain. What, one wonders, makes Indians so deeply susceptible to corruption? No, it is not poverty; many of the most corrupt are already prosperous. Neither is it the legacy which once allowed feudal lords to reign over humans with brazen irreverence to dignity and justice. Why are a people so prone to corruption especially when they love to be called the most religious people on earth and do indeed spend an enormous amount of time, emotional energy and wealth on worshipping the divine, or what they consider divine?
These questions have haunted me for decades. My answer is sociological and psychological. Let me compare: Growing up in Europe, we are from very early on fashioned into individuals. Soon after birth babies get their own bed, are taught not to wet it and to eat with their own hands. They are told not to cry and quarrel and not to interfere in the lives of adults. When the mother or father speaks, the children must respect them and keep quiet. They are given their clear limits and an unmistakable concept of what is right and what is wrong. “Yes” for them is a yes, and “No” remains a no. Punishment is always a possibility. Such an education is, however, not cruel, but is propelled by parental love, part of which is oriented towards making children fit to live in society.
Not so in India. Children tend to be treated as if they still live in the mother’s womb as long as possible. Body contact with the mother is a must. Mothers feed their children with their hand often until they are ten years old or more and allow them to share their bed often until puberty. They are indulged in, and are allowed to occupy large spaces of the adults’ attention and their private lives.
The result is that Indian children remain dependent on the adult members of the family for very long, often until they themselves become parents. They tend to lack a pioneering spirit, a spirit of risk-taking and prefer to remain conservative (in the best sense of the word) and tradition-bound. They, however, enjoy an enormous emotional security, a kind of primeval self-confidence (Urvertrauen, as the psychologist terms it) which shapes their psyche throughout their life and often allows them to endure a great deal of hardship without emotional harm.
A European child will venture out, leaving the sheltered life of the family as soon as possible. Something will be considered wrong with a boy or a girl who still lives with the family after the age of, say, twenty. I remember that I went to England on my own when I was just fourteen, and to the USA when sixteen. Nobody saw it as an act of extreme fortitude. Yet, the emotional warmth that Indian children grow up with, was never ours. We were told to stand on our own feet and develop our potentialities, for which all possible help and guidance was offered.
What does this have to do with the problem of corruption? It seems to me that in India the question of what is right and wrong, of what deserves a Yes and what deserves a No, is engulfed in a cloud of uncertainty. The decisions of what is right or wrong are largely not made according to clear objective norms, but by subjective example, by family traditions enacted around the child. These examples and traditions can change and assume different shades of meaning according to altered situations. Right and wrong are seen as subjective and situational. This provides a massive grey area in private as well as public life which per se is not governed by values, by dos and don’ts. This area is unstructured. Norms and structures may indeed exist, but on paper, just for name’s sake. If even the respected and honoured persons of a family and of society at large neglect adhering to these norms, not following them is not shameful for the general population.
Summing up, the individual right from childhood will take decisions on what to do in a given context according to the examples set by family and the social environment, with little consideration for social norms and laid-down laws. This group loyalty is at the origin of corruption. It tolerates that the individual basically looks after group interests first, ignoring the common good. Such group interest has, of course, different names: prestige, honour, convenience, profit.
Following such group interests does for the most part not deserve the name of corruption. That means, there is no criminal energy steering it. Giving a bribe in order to be issued a passport or getting a ration card renewed just saves the person a lot of running to offices and waiting for clerks to do the job. Bending the rules often amounts to a favour given to a family member or a friend, to honouring seniority and higher social position, to saving time and unnecessary expenses. We all know many such examples of actions which take advantage of this unstructured area of public life I have mentioned. It has developed into a kind of “parallel system”. You ring up the friend of a colleague and he gives you what you need within a day. It is not the “proper channel”, it is not “right”, we know; it is exploiting the “parallel system” which privileges us daily in many different ways. It is “backdoor culture”. It seriously disadvantages the un-privileged, the poor or the social “lower classes”, true! Yet we inadvertently and without much thought flow along in this parallel culture.
The real problem arises when this large unstructured area of public life is exploited for criminal ends. Putting it differently, many of us are unaware at which point simple favouritism or unthinking overlooking of a rule slips into criminal activity. When does asking for baksheesh become extortion; when does selfishness turn into hurting others; when does simply not observing a rule become criminal negligence?
Crossing the street in spite of a red light is an every-day occurrence. This is “right” as long as no accident happens. But when a child with less discrimination about traffic movements imitates you and is squashed under the wheel of a car, then your action suddenly is considered “wrong”, and people will even term it criminal. Yet, was it not criminal from the very outset? Almost daily we read in our newspapers examples of such behaviour which suddenly is seen as corrupt in the face of disaster.
In my opinion, corruption will end only when the grey areas where neither right nor wrong exists become unacceptable. This calls for a reversal of a mindset, not just for the formulation of new laws and the enactment of a new controlling body.
The writer is a German scholar based in Santiniketan and can be reached at .

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