We use cookies for site personalization, analytics and advertising. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it

Poverty and corruption


FOR weeks now I’ve been haunted by the story of Satyaendra Dubey, a young engineer, working in Bihar in eastern India. Dubey was involved in a big project to build roads that are meant to connect all of India – known as the Golden Quadrilateral. The project is also called the Indian Prime Minister’s ‘dream project’.

Dubey was an unusual man – disturbed by the extent of corruption in the project, he did not remain silent. He chose to speak out. But, being realistic, he did not make his anxiety public. Instead he wrote a confidential letter to the Prime Minister, giving chapter and verse about what he had seen and asked that his confidence be respected. Bureaucracy, however, does not care for the individual. Dubey’s letter did not remain confidential. Soon he lay on the streets of Bihar, a dead man, shot through the head on his way home one night.

There was some outrage at Dubey’s tragic death. The Indian Express, a national newspaper, campaigned to expose what had happened and to stimulate public protest. The paper collected some 50,000 signatures – an impressive number, though not much in a country of a billion plus. But, then, I didn’t sign either. So who am I to question the indifference of others?

In an odd way we’ve become so used to corruption, fraud and graft that we don’t even notice. It seems part of the order of things. There’s an index of corruption, compiled by an organization called Transparency International, by which different countries are judged. Our countries – in the South or what used to be known as the Third World – usually occupy the bottom spots. It’s often said that there’s a link between corruption and poverty – and that’s why the poorer countries are so corrupt. But I’m not so sure.

Last week I decided to test this out. I picked up a local newspaper and scoured it for stories of corruption. There was no shortage. Then I looked at a paper from Nepal and one from Pakistan and the result was the same. The next step was to pick up an international paper – international, but mainly with news from the West. The result was pretty much the same. If it wasn’t the Parmalat scandal or Silvio Berlusconi’s adventures with the law, it was contracts in Iraq for US companies. The only difference was one of scale. In some instances (largely in the South) we’re talking small money; in others (largely in the North) we’re talking mega money. But this is small comfort – the problem doesn’t disappear because the scale is small.

So what does poverty have to do with corruption? A fair amount I think. If you’re poor, badly paid, exploited by the system and denied your rights, arguments for ‘good citizenship’ or a ‘civic sense’ don’t really hold. You take what you get because whatever you can get is more than you’ve got. If it’s possible to earn a little more by duping the system, why not do it?

I’m not excusing corruption. But there is a way to understand the harassed traffic cop on a busy road who’s been inhaling dust and grime all day, who has a family to support and who earns barely enough for one person, who then quietly pockets a few rupees held out to him.

On the other hand there’s no way you can excuse a Prime Minister pushing through legislation that makes him immune from prosecution; or a President offering post-war contracts to his friends; or a contractor siphoning off millions and resorting to murder to continue doing so. Equally, there’s no way to excuse our own indifference – all too often corruption is blatant, open, shameless. And the practice continues because we don’t protest or fight it when it’s possible to do so.

There are examples of things that have made a difference. In South Korea several years ago a group of lawyers set up a website where they listed the names of all politicians accused of corruption. It’s said that 75 per cent of those men (and they were all men) were unable to stand for election as a result of the publicity.

All too often corruption is blatant, open, shameless. And the practice continues because we don’t protest or fight it when it’s possible to do so

In India, Satyaendra Dubey’s death was quickly followed by two more. A young couple trying to bring basic services like water to poor villages discovered that endemic corruption was robbing the villagers blind. When the couple was murdered, hundreds of villagers protested their deaths. Following a tradition that the death of a dear one is mourned by men having their heads shaved, every single male in one village had himself tonsured – even as the police hesitated to file a case. Sometimes symbolic protests are as important as material ones.

Since Dubey’s death I’ve been thinking that the biggest fight is against our own indifference, our acceptance of corruption as something that just is. It took the loss of a young man’s life to make me realize this. There has to be another way that doesn’t involve paying such a heavy price.

Urvashi Butalia is an Indian writer and publisher. She lives in New Delhi.

New Internationalist issue 366 magazine cover This article is from the April 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Subscribe today »


Help us produce more like this

Editor Portrait Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.

Support us »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop