Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Anna Hazare & the protest movement against corruption

Taking a break from talking about the holiday in Thailand.....Anna Hazare has been making the news quite a bit lately. Here are some articles from "The Guardian" newspaper about what's been happening here in Delhi while we were away:

Anna Hazare's anti-corruption protest sees Delhi signal compromise
Indian PM calls summit, although hunger striker accused of ignoring more urgent issues and backing xenophobic politicians

• Jason Burke in Delhi
• guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 23 August 2011 17.42 BST

Anna Hazare speaks to supporters during his hunger strike in front of a poster of Mahatma Gandhi at the Ramlila parade ground in Delhi. Photograph: Harish Tyagi/EPA

Moves to resolve the political crisis in India triggered by a 74-year-old anti-corruption campaigner's hunger strike have gathered pace.

After a weekend of mass street protests, the government has appointed a representative to hammer out a deal to the week-long standoff, reports said.

Anna Hazare, who has fasted for a week, wants the government to create an anti-corruption ombudsman with sweeping powers. His hunger strike has focused widespread anger over corruption – which is endemic in India – as well as broader grievances amid the growing middle classes.

"It is not just about corruption, not just about one issue. People are very emotional about this," Bhaskara Rao, a political analyst in Delhi, said. "However … there may be a deal relatively soon."

Following protests earlier this year, India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, proposed a small package of reforms. On Tuesday, he signalled that he would be prepared to meet further demands of the anti-corruption protest, calling for a meeting on Wednesday between all political parties.

Supporters say Hazare's health is a growing concern as he enters a second week of fasting.

"His health is weakening by the hour," Kiran Bedi, a former police officer and now a leading anti-corruption campaigner, told Reuters.

Later, she tweeted to tell followers to "pray for Anna's health. He is reaching a difficult stage."

Over the weekend, thousands of supporters filled a parade ground in the centre of Delhi, waving the national flag and chanting their support. But by Tuesday, the crowds were noticeably smaller owing to a combination of monsoon heat, open toilets, mounting waste and outbreaks of food poisoning and illness among protesters, many of whom travelled to the capital from across India. Organisers are believed to be concerned that the mobilisation of support has peaked.

The protests and pressure on the government have also led some activists to express reservations about the campaign.

The author and human rights campaigner Arundhati Roy launched a scathing attack on Hazare in an article published in the Hindu newspaper.

"Who is he really, this new saint, this Voice of the People? Oddly enough we've heard him say nothing about things of urgent concern," wrote the Booker prizewinning author, who also accused Hazare of supporting xenophobic politicians and ignoring other important issues such as poor farmers killing themselves over debt.

Other senior activists said the mass mobilisation and fast was "undemocratic". There has also been criticism from Muslim groups who see Hazare as being too close to radical Hindu organisations.

The crisis has added to the general sense of political drift in India, where a coalition government led by the Congress party, now halfway through its second term, has been hit by successive corruption scandals involving senior officials. Singh, 78, is widely seen as honest but out of touch.

Though Hazare and his followers have said they want the new ombudsman to have the power to investigate the prime minister and the judiciary, it is the mundane day-to-day routine of bribe-paying for millions of people which is fuelling the protests.

A bill to create an ombudsman first appeared before parliament in 1968.

"There is definitely room for compromise on the prime minister and the judiciary. This is not the crucial issue. But the bureaucracy, upper and lower, will have to be there," Rao said.

In India, it is routine to bribe public officials for basic services such as a telephone line or a passport.

The police have a particularly bad reputation. "I support Hazare. There is only a small amount of corruption in the police force," said Mohan Lal, an officer guarding the protest site in Delhi on Tuesday. "Anyway, it is only the bad people who pay bribes because they have done something wrong."

• © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.


Corruption in India: 'All your life you pay for things that should be free'

As Anna Hazare leaves prison to continue his protest, residents in Delhi explain how bribery forms part of everyday life

o Jason Burke in Delhi
o guardian.co.uk, Friday 19 August 2011 18.36 BST

Anna Hazare waves to the crowd during an anti-corruption protest in Delhi. Photograph: AP

Vishal is an ordinary man with an ordinary story of corruption in India. He lives in east Delhi, part of the traffic-choked sprawl of India's capital. He owns a fried chicken takeaway similar to thousands of others that have sprung up in recent years to serve the new tastes of the burgeoning middle class.

And he faces an ordinary Indian daily routine of petty corruption. The number of people Vishal has to pay off is bewildering. There are the local beat constables who take free lunches, and the more senior police officers who can cause problems with opening hours. They take 10,000 rupees (£130) on the 10th of each month to allow Vishal to stay open late.

Then there are the officials from various local authorities who also receive regular payments – around £50 per month – to ensure that health, safety and hygiene inspections go smoothly.

"Of the 40,000 rupees (£520) I earn a month from my restaurant, I pay at least a third in bribes," Vishal, 26, said. But bribery also extends into his personal life. Vishal has two young children and to get the eldest in to the best local school he paid a "donation" of 25,000 rupees (£3,400) in cash to the headmaster.

A driving licence needed another bribe. Getting an appointment with a competent public doctor cost a substantial amount. And then there are the traffic police. Every other week Vishal says he is stopped, told he has committed an offence and made to pay 100 rupees (£1.25), the standard fee to avoid "too much bother".

"I am so disappointed [about] everything you have to pay," he said. "And no one does anything. The politicians won't do anything because they are all corrupt too."

Such sentiments are widespread in India and explain the sudden outpouring of anger over recent days as tens of thousands of people took to the streets across the country to protest about the arrest of anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare.

Though a string of major corruption scandals such as the telecoms licence scam that cost the country up to £26bn, and the alleged fraud surrounding the high-profile Commonwealth Games in Delhi, has fuelled some of the fury, it is the grinding daily routine of petty corruption that is at the root.

"You pay for a birth certificate, a death certificate," said Varun Mishra, a 30-year-old software engineer and one of thousands who marched in Delhi to support Hazare. "All your life you pay. And for what? For things that should be free."

Hazare, 74, has harnessed this grassroots frustration to launch a popular movement. Having been jailed as a threat to public order, he went on hunger strike and refused to leave prison when released. He has finally left jail, having been granted permission to hold a 15-day fast in a public park.
His public relations team has run rings around clumsy and slow official spokesmen. India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has an impeccable reputation for personal probity but has looked distant and out of touch.

Hazare is campaigning for a powerful new anti-corruption ombudsman with the right to investigate senior politicians, officials and judges. His critics say this would be undemocratic, and worry about the division of powers. But for people like restaurateur Vishal, Hazare is a hero. "At least he is doing something," he said. "No one else is."

Though bribery, or "graft", is a fact of life for more or less everybody in India, the demonstrators are largely urban, educated and relatively well-off. "What you are seeing on the street is a middle-class rebellion," said Mohan Guruswamy, a former senior official in the ministry of finance and founder of the Centre for Policy Alternatives thinktank.

There are reports in local media that call centres and other back office operations in IT hubs such as Gurgaon, a satellite town of Delhi, and Bengaluru, the southern city, have faced staffing problems with up to half of workers joining the protests. Teachers, lawyers and medical professionals have also featured prominently.

Support for Hazare is particularly strong among those who have benefited most from India's recent breakneck economic development but are frustrated by a largely unreformed public sector that delivers poor and haphazard services. They are often the young.

Many of those who waited outside Tihar jail in Delhi to greet Hazare on his triumphant exit were in their teens or even younger. One 12-year-old carried a placard saying "save my future".

Tens of millions of school and college-leavers pour into the Indian jobs market each year. State institutions have not kept pace with aspirations raised by years of rapid economic growth and with skill levels low and good jobs scare, unrest could rise.

Senior Congress party politicians this week argued that some level of graft was "inevitable" in a developing economy. However, analysts said the extent of the problem in India – which ranks at 87 out of 178 on the campaign group Transparency International's index of corruption – is unique. "India is comparable to China, doing better than Russia, less well than Brazil," said Robin Hodess, the group's research director. "But bureaucratic and petty corruption is extreme in India."

Some say India's generally patchy law enforcement is to blame. "We are politically advanced in terms of institutions," said Guruswamy. "We have courts, a parliament and a long tradition of democracy ... but very few people are ever held to account." Last week a senior judge faced unprecedented impeachment proceedings 25 years after the alleged offence.

Others say those who pay the bribes are to blame too. One supreme court lawyer who refused demands for commissions in return for sanctioning payment for work he had done for the government, said giving in to corruption could be down to "deep powerlessness" or simply a "I just want to get on with my day" type of attitude. "As Indians we see corruption as something that permeates our lives, like air pollution, but we need to think much more carefully about it," he said.

Raghu Thoniparambil, who runs the website ipaidabribe.com, pointed out that corruption in the private sector was just as prevalent. "All these protests are very inspiring but will people really change? I don't know," he said.

Less ambitious and spectacular measures could have more impact than the ombudsman office Hazare and his followers want to create, Thoniparambil argues.

As well as perceptions of general corruption, Transparency International also compiles an index of nations where bribes are paid most frequently, particularly in business. India ranks 19 out of 22, above Mexico, Russia and China.

Manu Joseph, editor of the news magazine Open, speaks of "hypocrisy". "The Indian relationship with corruption is very complex and politicians are representative of society as a whole," he said.
But the widespread anger is also due to a sense that modern India not only deserves better but needs to at least moderate rampant corruption to compete on the world stage.

The most high profile cases have already damaged the nation's image sufficiently to slow economic growth. One text message circulating in India last week focused on the huge sums of "black money" illegally stashed by wealthy Indians in overseas assets and bank accounts. The return of these funds could pay for "Oxford-like universities", borders stronger than "the China wall" and roads "like in Paris", it said.

"We want a great country, stronger than the US, UK and Australia," said 18-year-old Sushil Kumar as he waited for the protest march from Hazare's jail to start. "India will be great, with its traditions, its culture. But we have to beat corruption."

The anti-bribery website launched last October, ipaidabribe.com is the brainchild of Raghunandan Thoniparambil, a retired official from the elite Indian Administrative Service.

By Friday 12,076 people had posted their personal stories of graft for all to see. They included businessmen forced to pay 50 rupees (70p) to traffic police, 300 rupees (£3.20) paid for a passport verification, 40,000 rupees (£540) handed over to have property registered, 5,000 rupees (£67) for a birth certificate and travellers who had to give 100 rupees (£1.30) to get berths on otherwise full express trains. Software takes names off the site.

"The aim is not to identify people but to identify the problem," Thoniparambil said. In June, after a BBC report about ipaidabribe.com several similar sites opened in China. Within two weeks they were shut down.

"In India we are sometimes a little slow or dysfunctional but civil society, simple democracy can make a huge difference," added Thoniparambil.

• © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.


Corruption in India: four stories

As anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare taps into public anger, ordinary Indians explain the role of bribes in their lives

• Jason Burke and Kakoli Bhattacharya in Delhi
• guardian.co.uk, Friday 19 August 2011 17.43 BST

Supporters of the Indian anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare in New Delhi. Photograph: Harish Tyagi/EPA

Vegetable vendor in Ashok Vihar, north Delhi, 45

Every week I pay 100 rupees (£1.40) to the police so that they let me put my cart in the market. The police constable comes every Saturday to collect the cash from all the vendors and if I do not pay then he will not allow me to sell my vegetables. I also have to pay the municipal corporation of Delhi whatever they ask. It can be any amount from 200 to 500 rupees a month. They also come to collect it. If the municipal corporation seizes our cart then to get it released from their main office is more troublesome. The man who collects money from us informs us beforehand that their vehicle will come today to pick up the carts if we are selling somewhere without authorisation.

School teacher, 38

I was beaten up by my husband regularly two years back and whenever I went to file a case against him, my husband would bribe the police officers. They even changed my witness statements. [So when I went to court] I had no evidence to get him behind bars. My husband left me with two kids of seven and 13 years and I had to try to go to court to get our maintenance. So far I have had no luck. Whenever there is a hearing I have to pay up to 500 rupees to get the written orders from the court.

They are supposed to cost only a 10th of that. But if I wait for the court to give it to me then it will take months. If I want to, I can even pay the assistant of the judge to give me an early date of hearing. I feel corruption is everywhere. You can even bribe judges to get the judgment in your favour. My husband was arrested because he left home with my jewellery, my car, and whatever cash I had at that time. But he was released from the court after he bribed our lawyer and the judge. Today he boasts that he can buy the judge or my lawyers if he wants and is not afraid of any law that can catch him.

Coalmine engineer, 45, based in a remote district of Madhya Pradesh

Generally a contractor or a supplier who supplies goods for the heavy machines or any kind of supplies which you need in coalmines has to pay 20% to 30% of the total cost to the officials at his client's head office. First he needs to pay to get the work and then to get his fees and costs paid from the finance departments. Or, as is often the case, he needs to pay to get them to turn a blind eye to the substandard materials he is using.

When I needed a passport we had to pay a certain amount to the agent who is in hand-in-glove with the passport officers. Next step is when the verification reaches the nearest local police station of wherever we live. The officers are meant to visit us to verify the application but instead they just call us to the police station and – if they know you are at all comfortable in terms of money – ask for cash.

They just say: "You are earning well. Give us some money for tea." This is a regular practice.

Factory worker in north Delhi, 34

I pays 50 rupees whenever I am caught by the police for not having a driving licence for the motorbike I ride. The best part is the way the police officers negotiate. It's as if they don't get a salary.

• © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

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