Corruption In India – A Tale Of Hungry Elephants


By Dr Uddipan Mukherjee

Sometimes in the second half of the seventeenth century, the Mughal Empire in India was gradually reaching its zenith under the aegis of Emperor Aurangzib. There was one noble of his, named Qabil Khan. He had a very short stint in the nobility. Even then, he could amass twelve lakhs (over one million Indian rupees) in cash during that period of office. However, he was not the only one. Lavishness exhibited by the nobles was an accepted norm in Mughal India. Historians tell us that everyday, a hundred dishes were prepared for Abul Fazl, Emperor Akbar’s court historian. In fact, in those days no official work could proceed without giving presents to the nobles. Thus corruption, jobbery and misuse of office were present, if not rampant in Medieval India.

The exploitation by the nobility was so heart-rending that the French traveler, Bernier tells us that on account of the demands of the rapacious lords, the Indian peasants were driven to despair at “so execrable a tyranny”.

Nonetheless, there seems to be a greener side to it because the nobles and the gentry, who usurped the finances, also put it into public use as they built mosques, hospices, inns, market places, canals, tanks, orchards and the like. In some way or the other, money looted in the country remained within its territorial confines.

Just a century down the lane, malfeasance in India acquired a different connotation altogether. The ‘servants’ of the English East India Company indulged in a ‘never-known-before’ type of acts of delinquency. Over and above their loot, rapine and plunder, they engineered an environment of corruption which could penetrate socio-cultural barriers.

However, scholarly euphemisms like ‘Drain of Wealth’ tended to shield such brazen acts, first by the Company and thereafter in a process of continuity by the bureaucracy of the Imperial Raj.

Corruption in post-colonial India must not and should not be ascribed to a legacy of the British Raj since that would be a highly simplistic solution. The root problem is ingrained within a complex matrix of socio-economic and cultural development of a nation-state; influenced by both internal psychological morphology and external dependencies on money-economy.

About three years back when I was returning to India from Seoul in a Singapore Airlines flight, I had an Englishman sitting beside me. By profession, he was a journalist and was visiting India as a traveler. Slowly, after the initial pleasantries, we got involved in some serious discussion. I threw at him a rather awkward question since I was curious to know what an outsider, especially a person whose Crown had ruled us for about a century, thought about us.

I sought his opinion on the reason behind the prevalence of corruption in India. After all, India, inter alia, has the distinction to be the top bribe payer in securing business deals. His reply, which hopefully was not dishonest, was that Indians were corrupt because they were ‘poor’. In fact, for that matter, people in the sub-continent were corrupt due to the same reason.

Well, three years have passed and India has moved on. It has, according to the words of the American President Barack Obama, ‘emerged’ and ‘not merely emerging’. India has galloped toward the moon. India has had an economy which grew at a robust rate of eight to nine per cent per annum. India could stealthily isolate itself from the evils of the global meltdown. India could boast of multibillionaires like the Ambanis and the Mittals. India generated a beefy volume of films which garnered not only popular appreciation at home and abroad, but at the same time could bag awards of the highest order. India also pumped outwards a healthy amount of software exports, the very body of which was churned out by an equally ‘expert’ body of ‘graduated’ staff. And finally, India did host the Commonwealth Games, as a ‘last-moment-salvaged’ possible brandishing of economic exuberance vis-a-vis China.

And, one more thing India did in the last three years. The government implemented a pay rise for its public servants and academia; a hike (of about 75 per cent) which places the ‘servants’ as a more-or-less privileged class compared to a parallel set of ‘masses’, who according to official statistics, comprise 30 per cent of the total population and visually portray a horde of dark-skinned, snub-nosed subjugated denizens with distended bellies which is symptomatic of an Ethiopia-esque landscape.

As if India’s legislators were privy to the conversation that I had with the Englishman in the Singapore Airlines flight in 2007, that they enhanced their own ‘salaries’ to the next higher level (an effective increase of about 100 per cent), wailing that even such an increment was not commensurate with their ‘constitutional status’.

Hence in 2010, at least the world and the ‘hapless’ Indians who have been implicitly codified as the ‘other’ in the lexicon of the ‘sane authorities’, expected a country free of corruption of the level of the Medieval hooligans or the colonial ruffians.

However, it was not to be and if the journalist Englishman is still around, he might have to re-hypothesize his conjecture regarding The Great Indian Corruption. A very recent example of an administrative officer in the Union Home Ministry selling himself off in return of monetary and sexual favours is a standard case in point.

Place: New Delhi, capital of the Indian Union. It was the venue of the Commonwealth Games. A last moment Indian magic could somehow resurrect the falling credibility and an A R Rehman song was a soothing conclusion to the pejorative event.

A peep into Wikipedia would ensure that the initial total budget estimated by the Indian Olympic Association in 2003 for hosting the Games was US $364.5 million but the escalated official total budget estimation in 2010 became US $2.6 billion, which excludes non-sports-related infrastructure development in the city. The Business Today magazine has estimated that the net cost for the games has turned out to be US $6.8 billion.

With such an astronomical budget on the carpet, it was not unexpected to have allegations of mismanagement and hence concomitant corruption against the involved officials. Most recent news quotes the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) that it has collected concrete documentary evidence against the organising committee Chairman Suresh Kalmadi which establishes his role in the Queen’s Baton relay controversy. Reports indicate that the CBI is planning the arrest of Mr Kalmadi on his return to India from the Asian Games in Guangzhou, China.

The Indian Constitution is the bulkiest of its kind in the world and Article 148 of the venerated, but not infallible document upholds the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) whose job of exploring any surreptitious squandering away of public exchequer is explicitly delineated in the next article of the same treatise.

Hence, the CAG did not trespass its jurisdiction when it raised a hue and cry against the loss to the tune of Rs.176,000 crore (about US $40 bn) to the public treasury. The fingers were being directly pointed toward A. Raja, then Union Telecom Minister. He reportedly gave away licenses at unusually low prices to some select companies for the 2G (second generation) electromagnetic spectrum wireless telephone technology. Instead of following the well-established auction route, the Minister took the First Come First Served (FCFS) process while disbursing the licenses. Interestingly, while indulging in that, Mr. Raja appears to have flouted norms, suggestions and directives of the Prime Minister, the Ministries of Law and Finance, and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India.

Well, Raja has resigned, just to shut some vociferous clamouring no doubt. However, it seems pretty hard to digest the fact that the Minister was peregrinating in such a turf since 2008 without the cognizance of his ‘bosses’, and the Prime Minister by virtue of the Cabinet system that works in India, is at the apex. A former Cabinet Secretary of India told that under the Transaction of Business Rules (1961) any decision above Rs 500 crore (US$110 million) has to go through the Union Cabinet.

P C Alexander, a former Governor of two of India’s provinces, in an article expressed shock when he said: “how could in a parliamentary democracy like ours, a minister ignore the advice of the Prime Minister in such a matter?”

Place: Mumbai, formerly Bombay and India’s financial capital. The city houses the country’s most prolific sportsperson, rather the ‘Godly’ cricketer, Sachin Tendulkar. However, a scam has recently been unearthed in this city which would quite easily surpass all of Tendulkar’s runs and with élan can force people to be more appalled at its magnitude than be horrified to watch the city taken at ransom by a few Pakistan-based terrorists as on 26/11.

The “Adarsh” Cooperative Housing Society, originally meant to be a six-storey structure to house Kargil war heroes and war widows, was converted into a 100-metre-tall building. [Kargil war was a brief skirmish between India and Pakistan in 1999].

The society was built subject to the condition that it would accommodate only war veterans and their widows, but now has 103 members, which include relatives of then Chief Minister of Maharashtra (Mumbai being its capital), Mr Ashok Chavan.

On top of that, former Army Chiefs Generals Deepak Kapoor and N C Vij and former Navy chief Admiral Madhavendra Singh and Vice-Chief Gen Shantanu Choudhary also got flats in the society. Interestingly, they have offered to surrender their flats on the grounds that they did not know (?) the land was meant for the widows of Kargil war heroes. The list also includes the names of former Union Environment minister Suresh Prabhu and a host of bureaucrats and their relatives. An individual by the name of S B Chavan also owns a flat. Amusingly, Ashok Chavan’s late father was also S B Chavan!

According to the present market rate in the South Mumbai area where the society is located, an average-sized flat could cost somewhere between Rs 6 crore and Rs 8 crore (US $1.3 to $1.7 million). However, members of the society paid a meager one-tenth of the said price for each flat.

Now, what has been the outcome of such a leak? Simple. Another resignation and this time of the Chief Minister Ashok Chavan.

So, arrests and resignations have taken place and the CBI is on the move. The moot question though pertains to the alacrity of the investigating agency.

Coming back to my English friend’s hypothesis, one thing turns out to be common in these three stories. None of the protagonists were ‘poor’. Rather they were well entrenched in the Indian society. So, what made them ‘corrupt’? Was it simply greed?

This is a simple question which has a difficult answer.

Anthropologists, Historians, Sociologists, Psychologists, Political Scientists; may be even Biologists and Physicians have to get their acts together in a collaborative joint venture to unearth the psyche of the Indian Elephants who tend to eat more and more and more and more………… mutate into massive colossus beasts.

2010 would soon give way to 2011. India’s policy-makers would boast of high growth projections and Indian Space Research Organisation shall attempt to compete with China in Space architecture and Sachin Tendulkar, by all estimates would go on scoring more runs. The ‘Aam Aadmi’ (common man) of India would be enthralled and bemused with these and also watch more movies while munching popcorn.

The Elephants, however, shall go on eating, unabated, undaunted and unhindered.

(Dr Uddipan Mukherjee has a doctoral degree from TIFR (Dept. of Atomic Energy, India). He writes on strategic issues concerning international security. He can be reached at [email protected])

“This article was first published by the Diplomatic Courier on 29 November 2010 (” and the author has obtained the permission of the publishers.


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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