by Priyanka Bhardwaj
Corruption inextricably linked with bureaucratic hassles has always existed in India. Yet, however hard some of us may try to understand them as ‘inescapable miseries’ that need to be adopted as preferred routes to get small things done, in the long run they poison the system by eroding the validity and rule of law.
There was a time when one would hear of an official being bribed to get something wrong or illegal done. But today grafts have to be paid even for getting good, lawful things done. Poisonous elements pervade all levels of approval and enforcement agencies, adversely impacting the basic rights and services of the common citizenry.
It is ironic that in a country that does not shy away from flaunting its badge of ‘nuclear status’ and its capabilities of sending intercontinental ballistic missiles that it took more than 86 hours for a rescue operation.
In Manesar the law forbids the digging of borewells due to the plunging water table. In a clear violation of this rule, this borewell not only was dug by the house owner on his premises, but also was abandoned without a proper sealing, reflecting the complicity of the wrong doers with the inspecting authorities.
According to a village local, Mahender, “This is just one example of how influential and rich villagers connive with police and scrutiny officials from district administration to get borewells dug by poor migrant laborers who are too scared to report it to the police.”
An incessant barrage of media questioning elicited reactions from the authorities that were contradictory, insensitive, and knee-jerk in nature. On paper the district administrator has instituted 18 committees to report on illegal wells. This particular well, however, is not mentioned in any of investigations.
The victim’s father, Neeraj Upadhaya, wishes that the authorities would hand out a strong punishment to the culprits that would have a deterrent value. Insensitive remarks of Chief Minister of Haryana, Bhupinder Singh Hooda: “Such things happen all over the country, so why just blame us,” makes one wonder, however, if the authorities have anything of the sort in mind.
Kho’s former sarpanch (headman) and officiating Chairman of the area block samiti (body of villages), Om Prakash Yadav recounts, “The authorities were pressed into action only when the media arrived at the scene. When the army’s efforts were proving futile I suggested a local skilled well-borer, Saurav Khan to retrieve the child but then it took a lot of convincing on my part and an invaluable amount of time was lost in the process.”
Inseparable from such incidents is that authorities have a habit of extending help only when the incident involves the acquaintances and relatives of a high profile person or when the media plays up the incident.
As Upadhayay recounts, “Had there been timely action the child would perhaps have been saved. The authorities came unprepared and one whole day went by without anything being done. In fact they were asking us for money to run the earth removal machine. We are poor people, how do we afford all this. Is this not the authorities’ responsibility? We want justice and strong punishment of the guilty.”
Over two months have passed and the magisterial inquiry that was supposed to provide a report in 15 days still has not done one.
Meanwhile Mahi’s parents, unable to deal with the trauma, have moved to a nearby village.
When contacted, they lamented that are yet to receive the government assistance promised in front of the media and are at wit’s end trying to convince neighbors to give statements to the police for the investigation to proceed.
Similar stories are repeated over and over in countless other cities where unattended pits, bore-wells, manholes, and drains swallow unsuspecting lives due to lack of accountability by authorities and their collusion with the culprits.
Last year in a southern city of Nagpur, the Health Department reported 450 to 500 open manholes and drains. In Mumbai, locals and activists have charged the Municipal Corporation for false claims of “full preparedness in dealing with the coming monsoons.”
Nitin Desai of the city’s F North citizens’ forum says, “Like every year we have complained several times to ward officials with photos about missing or broken lids of manholes. There has been no de-silting work done in them. So far no action has been taken even though the monsoons have hit the province.”
Clearly the August 2010 Supreme Court’s guidelines to the Central Government and the Provinces to take adequate steps to prevent deaths of children falling into wells and borewells had not been followed. In backward regions there are additional problems to be countered such as the sale of metal manhole covers fetching Rs.20 (.36 USD) to Rs.40 (.73 USD) for a kilogram of the metal to ‘poor’ thieves who have to survive on less than a dollar a day.
The challenges to resolve the issues are enormous. They are worsened both by the deep-seated social acceptability, popular resignation, and tolerance for corruption and absence of a formal system of inculcating values of ethics and integrity.
Psychologist, Jagdeep Singh explains how the sense of utter carelessness about safety for human lives is manifested in ‘Bystanders phenomenon,’ or Genovese syndrome, underlining people’s behavior during most tragedies. “This in turn deprives victims of timely medical help and Mahi’s case is a classic example of this….and then the accompanying indifference allows criminals to go scott-free,” she says.
While talking of solutions, Haresh Raichura, a practicing lawyer at the Supreme Court, states, “The Right to Information Act is a powerful tool to obtain information from government about any area. If the authorities are found deferring implementation of any guidelines the people can file a writ in the High court. Till the time people trust the authorities to move into action there will be no change on the ground.”
Furthering this line of action, social activist Rajen Singh recommends “strengthening of vigilance bodies like the Central Vigilance Commission that advises and guides central agencies in cases of corruption or any complaints thereof is very important. The bodies have to be equipped to deal with spreading more awareness among people regarding implications of receiving or giving bribes and corruption. There cannot be any alternative to introduction of special courts for speedy justice. Only this can ensure relevance of the strong and stringent laws do exist in our law but have been ineffective till date.”
Thus it can be concluded that to combat corruption India needs a comprehensive, systemic correction with retributive justice and government-insulated institutions for redress, integrating expectations of all stakeholders. Social audits and transparency would play a decisive role and would buttress the political will to take on the entrenched vested interests.
Priyanka Bhardwaj is an independent journalist and risk analyst based in Gurgaon/New Delhi, India who has covered diverse issues related to the Indian subcontinent for seven years. Her work has been published in Asia Sentinel, Opinion Asia, Siliconeer Magazine, Asia Times, and Business Times (Singapore) among others. Her area of interest spans marginalized social strata, women, children and climate change. Fluent in more than 8 Indian languages, Priyanka is writing a book about her travels and experiences on the Indian subcontinent.