By Sandeep Sahu
The trumpeters of Narendra Modi would have us believe that his ‘surgical strike’ announced on November 8 has knocked the living daylights out of the corrupt and black money hoarders. But going strictly by evidence, it does not appear to have deterred our vast army of corrupt officials one bit. For them, it is ‘business as usual’, the only difference being they now take their bribe in mint fresh Rs 2000 notes instead of the soiled Rs 1000 and Rs 500 notes that they did earlier, saving on space and enhancing the ‘ease of doing business’ in the process.
Just three days ago came news about two Kandla Port Trust officials being caught by the Gujarat Anti Corruption Bureau (ACB) with Rs 2.9 lakh of bribe money in Rs 2000 denomination for clearing a pending bill of a service provider. In fact, just a day after the Prime Minister’s announcement of the demonetization of high value currency notes, a government official in Solapur in neighbouring Maharashtra had the cheek to demand that he be paid his bribe only in denominations of Rs 100!
Closer home, Chittaranjan Senapati, an auditor with the local fund audit in Baripada, had the dubious distinction of emerging as the first man to be arrested for graft (with Rs 2000 notes) in the state while taking a bribe of Rs 10, 000 from a clerk in the Gopabandhu Nagar block. And today, Prasanna Panda, a clerk in the Public Health department was caught by vigilance sleuths while accepting a hefty bribe from a contractor in Rs 2000 notes.
It does not require rocket science to know that all four cases cited above are cases of generation of ‘black money’ because they were never going to declare these ‘incomes’ in their tax returns. So who exactly is shitting in his pants at this purported ‘war’ on black money? Certainly not the countless government officials used to years of taking bribe for ‘services’ they are hired and paid for by the government. If anything, they have become even more audacious as evident in the insistence on having their ‘cut’ only in denominations of Rs 2000!
Long before the Prime Minister’s ‘surgical strike’ on black money, our very own crusader against corruption Naveen Patnaik had let loose the vigilance on unsuspecting petty officials asking for and accepting bribes for ‘favours’. In newsrooms across the state, the press release from the vigilance giving details of the people ‘netted’, the amount recovered and disproportionate assets identified had become a mandatory, daily routine (and the subject of countless jokes, one may add!). If the daily arrests - followed inevitably by suspension and prolonged litigation - did not deter prospective bribe-takers, it is futile to expect that demonetization would do so.
How did we come to such a pass? This columnist can think of three major reasons for the ‘mainstreaming’ of corruption and bribe-taking. The first is what one may dub the ‘man-eating tiger’ syndrome. Just as a tiger is said to turn a man-eater after tasting human blood once, ill-gotten money tastes sweeter than the hard-earned salary for the average government official lacking the moral sinew to resist the temptation. Soon, it gets to a point where the legit salary becomes a minuscule part – small change, if you like - of his total earnings.
The second reason is ‘peer pressure’. Apparently, corrupt government officials are terribly uncomfortable with a colleague who doesn’t take bribes and do everything possible within their means to make him ‘fall in line’. [In a bizarre parody of the old adage, they perhaps believe that one rotten fish spoils the whole pond!] Slowly but surely, the reluctant colleague gives in – initially not so much because he wants the graft money but because he doesn’t want to earn the wrath of his colleagues! I have this friend who used to take great pride at one point of time about the fact that he ‘never asked’ for bribe from anyone. Over a period of time, he graduated to a position where he, while still not ‘asking’ for a bribe, demanded an explanation from the concerned person on why he never paid after the work was done!!
The third – and perhaps the most important – reason for the all-pervasive nature of the phenomenon of bribe-taking is there is no shame in it anyomre. Having your photographs splashed all over the newspapers or shown on TV as a bribe-taker is not something that the corrupt lose much sleep over these days. For the vast majority of them, it is a temporary irritant at best that will be forgotten in due course. This author was once witness to the hilarious bragging by a police officer suspended on graft charge; “It was a blessing in disguise for me. I had a plot of land in the city for years, but couldn’t construct a house because I didn’t have the time. Now that I have all the time in the world, I can do it in one go.” But wasn’t he afraid that he could lose his job? “No way. You can rest assured the suspension will be revoked in a few months’ time and everything will be fine,” he said with a nonchalance that can only come from a man who knows the ‘system’ inside out.
With officials like these, Narendra Modi – or, for that matter, Naveen Patnaik – are living in a fool’s paradise if they believe that they can deter the determined bribe-taker with demonetization or a few vigilance raids.