Sleaze Matters
TODAY'S EDITORIAL in Times of India online 16 Jun 2008

Hafta in Hindi, yang-lien in Chinese and baksheesh in Persian all mean the same thing. They are words used to describe corruption. A just-released UNDP report has found that corruption continues to be a crippling problem in countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Though there are studies that suggest that corruption is greater when there are low levels of growth, the report warns that corruption does not necessarily go away with a higher rate of growth and better living standards.

This obviously has lessons for India. Though the report itself doesn't rank countries on levels of corruption because of the difficulty in measuring corruption, it has published three sets of rankings produced by
Transparency International, the World Bank and the International Country Risk Guide. While India has improved slightly on Transparency International's corruption index for 2007, it has done worse or remained static in the other two rankings. This is a worrying trend, which shows that India's rapid growth over the past few years hasn't contributed to a decline in corruption.

On the flip side, the UNDP study does not find conclusive empirical evidence to link corruption and economic growth. While a country like Bangladesh has achieved steady growth in spite of being ranked as one of the most corrupt countries, India's growth rate has fluctuated even though perceptions of corruption have remained relatively stable. The report has, however, found that corruption does have an effect on human development. Corruption is likely to determine the character of public investment. Corrupt officials are more likely to invest in large infrastructure projects that offer greater opportunity of collecting rent. This leads to a skewed pattern of public expenditure, away from health education and environmental protection to roads, airports or military hardware.

However, the picture is not entirely gloomy. There are encouraging signs of success in tackling corruption. Right to information (RTI) laws have had the effect of making governments more accountable. In 1990, there were only 13 countries in the Asia-Pacific with RTI laws. By 2007, the number had risen to 70. In India, RTI, which is considered to be one of the most progressive such legislations in the developing world, has forced government officials to become more transparent. The internet and ever-multiplying blogs have also played a role, particularly in repressive regimes, in checking corruption. There are other measures such as e-governance, strong anti-corruption agencies and better compensation for civil servants that could lead to reducing corruption. Finally, one of the traditional agents of exposing corruption remains an independent media. In this respect, India fares better than many Asian countries.