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India's anti-corruption movement gains momentum, has far to go

By Ram Ramgopal, CNN
Anna Hazare repeatedly invoked Mohandas K. Gandhi while talking about his anti-corruption movement.
Anna Hazare repeatedly invoked Mohandas K. Gandhi while talking about his anti-corruption movement.
  • Observers: Anti-corruption movement was just one victory
  • New resolution supports protestors' demands
  • Personal stories show widespread corruption

Editor's Note: CNN Executive Producer Ram Ramgopal was born in India and worked as a journalist with newspapers in Mumbai before moving to his Atlanta-based job with CNN. He has also worked as a New Delhi-based correspondent for CNN.

(CNN) -- India's anti-corruption movement may be basking in the warm afterglow of success after getting the undivided attention of the country -- and its parliamentarians -- on the question of an independent watchdog body to deal with dishonest politicians and government employees.

But many observers are saying it is just one victory, albeit a significant one, in the battle against pervasive corruption in India. The war, they point out, is still a long way from being won.

The Indian Parliament passed a resolution last week supporting many of the protestors' demands. In turn, Anna Hazare, the 74-year-old leader of the movement, called off his 13-day hunger strike after the resolution acknowledged his central demands, including the creation of the post of the ombudsman known as the Jan Lokpal.

The Jan Lokpal bill is not a done deal, but there's no going back on the idea, said Coomi Kapoor, a contributing editor with the national Indian Express newspaper and longtime political observer in New Delhi.

A so-called standing committee of parliamentarians will now weigh the proposals to bring the judiciary as well as high-ranking officials, including the prime minister, under the ambit of anti-corruption laws.

Kapoor said some of the proposals could yet be watered down, especially one that would create a large and unwieldy bureaucracy to enforce the proposed act. But she added that the anti-corruption movement had been a "game changer in Indian politics."

"It showed people's strength," Kapoor said, "and it also succeeded in painting politicians as a symptom of the problem."

Corruption intrudes at life's worst moments

More than two decades on, Mumbai's G-South Ward Office is hard to forget: The crumbling facade, the labyrinthine warren of city departments, the tiny offices jammed with bookshelves overloaded with dusty files. Venturing into that building was not for the faint of the heart, but residents of the ward had little option when it came to matters of life and death.

The death of my father brought me to the office in May 1989. He had died of a heart attack near his car on a public street. He was just 51, and it was a deep shock for my family, even though we were well aware of his heart condition.

My father had been visiting friends in Bombay, as it was then known, and without a death certificate from the G-South Ward Office (which happened to be the ward where the friends' house was located), we could not claim his life insurance policy, or execute his will.

Still reeling from the personal loss, I went to the ward office day after day, each visit proving unsuccessful, without being told why I couldn't get the certificate. There were mostly shoulder shrugs from the clerks and downright hostility from the officer whose all-important signature I needed.

Some friends suggested I should grease the system, but I could not in good conscience pay a bribe for something I believed was my right: service from a government agency. If anything, I thought a grieving son would have gotten a sympathetic ear from the official bureaucracy.

It was soon evident that the application was going nowhere. So I had to try the time-tested method of using a friend who knew people placed higher on the food chain. When the orders came from above, the death certificate materialized. I had not paid a bribe, but it didn't make me feel any less upset. It was a stark choice: to corrupt or use one's connections.

"There's corruption at every level," said Roy Wadia, who returned to India after living nearly 20 years in the United States to take care of a family property matter. Wadia, who works with a nongovernmental organization in India, says he's visited hundreds of government officials as the fight wends its way through the courts. "I'm glad I can fight it where I can," Wadia said. Two years into the battle, I'm prepared to stick it out a while longer. If everyone gives in, then nothing gets done."

A U.S.-based businessman, who does not want his real name used, recounts a different experience. He set up a back office in India in 2004 to take advantage of the country's expertise in the information technology sector, which has been among the big success stories and has been relatively free of corruption.

In 2010, in the course of renewing certain licenses, he says a government official asked for a bribe.

Torn by the request, the businessman says he went to the website of the Indian Prime Minister's Office. He sent a message (250 words or less, he remembers) addressed to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

"I wrote something along the lines of: 'By paying a bribe I will be undermining the kind of nation you're trying to build; if I don't, I'm going to be hounded and targeted.' I worded it almost as a plea: 'I need your help, what do I do?'" the entrepreneur recalled.

He says he didn't expect much. Instead, he got a call from the government agency that was delaying his license. "The problem was addressed, the errant officers were replaced, the process went forward," he recalled.

The businessman believes there are people who want to reform the system and do the right thing. But, he notes, "It's going to require a generational change. It takes two parties to create a corrupt entity -- one is the person that pays the bribe and one is the recipient of the bribe."

Paying bribes from cradle to grave

There seems to be little doubt that tackling corruption in India will require reform of more than just the political system. The average citizen has to contend with paying bribes from cradle to grave.

The website chronicles the experiences of average citizens, when it comes to getting a driver's license, registering a police complaint, interacting with municipal authorities or dealing with customs officials. The site reports nearly $10 million dollars paid in brides, based on the approximately 14,000 reports by those who chose to take part in the exercise.

The macro picture is equally stark: In 2010, India was ranked 87 out of 178 countries in Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index. The global business consulting firm Albright Stonebridge estimates that the so-called "parallel economy" is about $500 billion, compared to the national GDP of about $1.4 trillion.

Now even the richest Indians are sitting up and taking note: Industrialist Anand Mahindra, who runs a major multinational conglomerate, wrote on his Twitter account on August 16: "Democracy means no voice, however small, must go unheard. The anti-corruption sentiment is not a whisper-it's a scream. Grave error to ignore it"

Vivek Abrol cannot afford to ignore it. In his 10 years in business, Abrol says he's never seen it this bad: Corruption, eating into the system, fed by red tape, outmoded laws and collusion between bureaucrats, politicians, and other unscrupulous businessmen.

Abrol, a real estate developer in Mumbai, says he has seen a steady increase in the rate of corruption over the past decade. He blames the huge number of laws he has to comply with; for every apartment building he constructs, he needs more than 250 permits to be signed off by municipal and state officials. Some will refuse to OK the plans unless they're paid off, he says.

"This is ridiculous," Abrol said in a telephone interview. "It's got into every one's blood. We can't think creatively. How do we battle the mountains of regulation?"

He has a full team of workers just to get the permits, and estimates that raises the cost of an apartment by up to 20 percent.

Hazare's movement, he says, inspires him.

"I am very hopeful. What we're fighting for is good," Abrol said.

Ordinary citizens push for change

Hazare's cause was backed by ordinary citizens (many of them from the new middle class), banded together in a loose consortium described by the Indian media as the "civil society."

Hazare repeatedly invoked Mahatma Gandhi while talking about his message, and also employed tactics used by the Indian freedom fighter to end British rule more than six decades earlier.

His group remained above the partisan fray that typifies Indian politics. At the same time, they directed their anger toward a system they see as part of the problem, a system where some elected officials implicated in major corruption scandals can slow the system down.

Now a bill pending in Parliament for decades will be revised to give more teeth to the proposed anti-corruption body.

Vishakha Desai, the president and CEO of the Asia Society in New York, said there is widespread frustration among the middle class about the level of corruption in daily life. The outsized political scandals have added to that sense of a malaise, she said, especially as the economy grows rapidly, flooding money into the system.

"The timing is right and Anna Hazare understood that. He gave voice to that frustration," Desai said.

But Desai added: "While the cause is right and some of the tactics might be necessary... the hard work in India is going to be to change the system. I see it (the movement) as the beginning of something ... Let's not say the problem is solved."

Indeed, key differences remain. The government, which points to the supremacy of Parliament in a constitutional democracy like India's, has also had to acknowledge that its version of the bill was weak. For their part, some members of the ruling Congress party counter that Hazare's vision of an ombudsman would be all-powerful, with no parliamentary oversight. Who'll police the super police, they ask.

Wadia says he believes for many Indians, democracy has been restricted to voting every few years. The emerging movement, he says, is more urban, and one that wants accountability, transparency and participation.

And for him, it's coming just in time, "India can't continue with business as usual."