Sunday, October 05, 2008

Corruption’s real victims

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Oct 5, 2008


She sat on her haunches. Her face was lined by a hundred years of worry. Saraswati Devi, age unknown, is a widow who lives in Sikandra village in South Bihar’s Nawada district. Her story is not unusual. Yet you weep when you hear it because of the sense of helplessness it brings up.

I was asking Saraswati Devi what the Mukhiya of her Panchayat, a remarkable woman called Veena Devi who lives in the same village, had done for women. Even as I asked the question, a dozen other women entered the room, stood in the doorway or craned their necks to look inside the house where this conversation was taking place.

Lack of awareness

“I did not know that I was entitled to a government pension”, she said. “It is Veena Devi who helped me get it.” So now was she getting her pension, I asked. Yes, she said. She had to go to the nearest post office, some distance away, by whatever means of transport available. And then when she got there, the postman cut Rs. 10 from her pension of Rs. 100 a month. Why? That is the “fee” for the work he does to give her the pension, she said, with not the slightest tinge of cynicism. When she was told that she actually did not need to travel to the post office and that the postman was supposed to deliver the pension to her in the village, she could not believe it. “But then he will ask for Rs. 15”, she said.

There must be millions of poor women like Saraswati Devi who either don’t know that they are entitled to a pension, or have to forfeit a part of it to get it. You can’t really blame the postman. He is doing this to recover the costs of payments that he probably has to make at another level. Everyone is trying to recover the costs of corruption. But ultimately the person who pays the price is the most vulnerable person at the very bottom, women like Saraswati Devi.

Of course, illustrations of this are available everywhere. We don’t have to travel to Bihar to see the manner in which corruption has eaten into every facet of life. In fact, apart from an expanding economy, the area covered by corruption in India is also growing every year. According to Transparency International’s 2008 survey of corruption, India’s ranking amongst least corrupt countries has fallen from 72 to 85. The United Nations Development Programme estimates that India’s GDP growth is cut by a quarter of what is possible because of corruption. It is also evident from stories such as this that corruption hits the poor the hardest because they are almost entirely dependent on the largesse of the State.

Apart from Saraswati Devi’s story, there were other illustrations of the costs of corruption. Near Sikandra village is Loharpur, a village with about 400 houses. The majority of the population of the village is Dalit and very poor. The village has a primary and middle school. The same Mukhiya, Veena Devi, is using development funds to build additional buildings for the school.

Yet, for over 500 students, there are only four teachers, including the principal. On the day we visit, an inspector checking the state of 20 schools in the surrounding villages is also present. What about the mid-day meal for the primary school students, I ask. Both the inspector and the principal admit that the children have not received a hot meal for almost a year now. Why? Because there are no supplies available, they say. The inspector admits that most of the 20 schools under him have not been serving a mid-day meal for at least a year.

Meanwhile the parents of the children, who are listening to this exchange, get really angry and begin shouting. They accuse those in-charge of the school of making off with the grain. Everyone seems to know that “No supplies” is a euphemism for supplies diverted for some other use or to someone’s kitchen. Once again, the most vulnerable, children for whom the bowl of khichdi is the only decent meal they will get in a day, are paying the price.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)

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