Guest Post: Fighting Corruption Through Social Audits in India: How Far Can Voice Get Without Teeth?

Today’s Guest Post is from Suchi Pande, Scholar in Residence at American University’s Accountability Research Center and Center Founder and Director AU Professor Jonathan Fox.

India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee became a lifeline for migrant labor arbitrarily expelled from cities and left stranded and broke due to COVID-19 lockdowns. One of the largest employment safety net program in the world, it comes with a mandate for state governments to carry out “social audits,” a procedure empowering its beneficiaries to monitor leakages and the denial of rights resulting from the arbitrary exercise of power across India’s 600,000 villages. In short, to spotlight corruption.

How? With a social audit, program beneficiaries publicly scrutinize its implementation and government actors must respond to shortcomings in officially convened public forums and redress grievances. The audits date to a 2005 law driven by a combination of a grassroots advocacy campaign and a reform-minded government.  Social audits can engage populations directly in the fight against corruption where:

  1. the audit reveals corruption in some form, such as the leakage (embezzlement) of program funds, demands for bribes to release the funds, or the outright denial of participants rights to the funds;
  2. those conducting the audit have the capacity to communicate their findings clearly and understandably to the affected individuals or group;
  3. those affected are informed of the findings and understand the violation of the law or policy that led to the losses; and
  4. a third party — government agency or civil society group — convenes a public forum where government officials and elected representatives discuss the audit findings in an atmosphere free from reprisal, where the affected persons can participate and vouch for the accuracy of findings.
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Reforming the Indian Judiciary from the Bottom Up

“Corruption is as old as society. Corruption has become a way of life, [an] acceptable way of life. And judges don’t drop from heaven.” 

This was former Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi’s reply when a journalist asked him about corruption in India’s courts. Such a statement may seem extraordinary coming from a former Chief Justice, but he is not alone in holding this belief. Two other former Chief Justices have acknowledged the pervasive corruption problem facing India’s judiciary, particularly in the lower courts where most Indians interact with the judicial system. And this perception is backed up by quantitative evidence: according to Transparency International, 32% of Indians who used the courts in 2020 had paid a bribe that year, while 38% resorted to personal connections to navigate the system. 

Much of the public outrage over India’s judicial corruption has understandably been directed toward individual corrupt judges (see herehere, and here), but the problem reflects deeper systemic issues—perhaps most importantly, the massive case backlog. There are currently forty million pending court cases in the country’s District Courts and Subordinate Courts, and every year that number grows by millions more. By some estimates, it would take 400 years for the judiciary to clear the backlog at its current rate (and that’s assuming no new cases are filed in the meantime). It takes an average of 35 months to resolve a legal issue in India, the longest in the world according to one report. And many cases take much longer: over half a million cases have been pending for over twenty years.

This case backlog, and the glacial pace of Indian justice, is not only a crisis for the administration of justice but also a breeding ground for corruption. Given the extraordinary delays, those litigants who can afford to do so have strong incentives to pay bribes or use connections to get a faster verdict. (Most bribes are paid to court officials or middlemen, including lawyers, rather than directly to judges.) And, without excusing those judges who violate their oaths of office, it’s not that surprising that overworked, underpaid judges dealing with crushing caseloads would be tempted to accept these under-the-table payments. In essence, then, the extreme case backlog in the lower courts has created something of a two-track system, one for those that can pay the price to skip the line, and one for everyone else.

As the number of pending cases continues to balloon, this problem is only going to get worse. While punishing those judges (and their staff) who are caught requesting or receiving bribes—and those litigants and facilitators who offer those bribes—may be morally and legally justified, cracking down on individual wrongdoers is not enough to address the structural roots of India’s judicial corruption problem. 

What can be done? Though there are no easy solutions, India needs to adopt reforms to increase both the quantity and the quality of its lower court judges:

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Tackling Corruption While Preserving Judicial Independence: Lessons from India’s Supreme Court 

In India, Justices of the Supreme Court and judges of India’s 25 regional High Courts are appointed through a process known as the Collegium System. Although the Constitution vests the appointment power in the President of India, the President may only appoint a Supreme Court or High Court nominee recommended by a body called the Collegium, which consists of the Chief Justice, the four other senior-most Supreme Court Justices, and, in the case of High Court nominees, the senior-most judge on the High Court of the prospective appointee.

This system, which developed over the 1980s and 1990s as part of a decades-long tug-of-war between the branches of government, is controversial. Some critics have argued that the Collegium, which operates largely as a black box, leads to the selection of judges based on cronyism and quid pro quos, regardless of a nominee’s merit or scruples. Notably, critics contend, the Collegium System allows for the appointment of corrupt judges because the secrecy of the Collegium’s deliberations prevents accusations of impropriety against those nominees from becoming public. In buttressing this claim, critics point to instances of High Court judges who have been credibly accused of corruption, including one who was formally charged at the end of last year for taking a bribe in exchange for a favorable verdict. Critics also contend that the Collegium System exacerbates judicial corruption through another, more indirect channel: The Collegium’s slow pace has left hundreds of High Court seats vacant, which exacerbates the Indian court system’s extreme case backlog. That backlog, in turn, encourages petty bribery, as many frustrated litigants would prefer to bribe a judge or court official to jump the line or get a case dismissed rather than wait years for a final resolution. Even former Chief Justice V.N. Khare acknowledged that bribes for bail are rampant in the lower courts given the delays litigants may face down the line.

In response to these concerns, the Indian Parliament, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, voted overwhelmingly in 2014 to amend the Indian Constitution to replace the Collegium with a National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) composed of representatives from all three branches. But before the law could go into effect, the Supreme Court ruled it an unconstitutional threat to judicial independence. While calls for reform temporarily abated, just last December a member of Modi’s cabinet expressed support for reintroducing the NJAC amendment to replace the Collegium System.

Any such attempt, however, would be misguided. Anti-Collegium reforms like the NJAC would undermine India’s hard-won judicial independence, and the corruption problem these reforms would purport to solve has been greatly exaggerated.

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“Elect a Government That Works”: A Case Study in Populism and Corruption from India 

As the United States was reeling from President Richard Nixon’s resignation following the Watergate scandal, another imperiled leader—Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi—was fighting for her political life thousands of miles away. Although Gandhi and Nixon never got along, their stories overlap. Both barely squeaked into power after close elections in the late 1960s, but then won resounding reelection victories in the early 1970s. Gandhi’s political fortunes, like Nixon’s, took a turn for the worse shortly after reelection, in light of substantiated accusations of illegal campaign activity. But at this point, Nixon and Gandhi’s stories diverge. Unlike Nixon, Gandhi stayed the course and refused to resign. And in the end she prevailed: Gandhi was popularly elected three times with some of the largest governing majorities in Indian history.

How did Gandhi convince the public to reelect her, despite her known, widespread abuses of authority? How did a leader ensnared in scandal and corruption hold onto power to become one of the most beloved leaders in the world’s largest democracy? The answer to these questions may lie in Gandhi’s concentrated emphasis on left-wing populism. She argued to voters that she alone was most capable of effectuating change for India and its most needy citizens by enacting social programs and redistributing wealth. Additionally, Gandhi spent much of her time as Prime Minister consolidating her power within the party and the central government. This enabled much of the corruption that marked her rule but was also what allowed her to argue to the public that she was uniquely capable of fixing the nation’s problems.

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From the Permit Raj to the Billionaire Raj: Corruption, Liberalization, and Income Inequality in India

For over a year, tens of thousands of Indian farmers camped on the highways of New Delhi in protest of three new agricultural laws heralded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Those laws proposed a national framework for liberalizing the country’s heavily-regulated agricultural markets, allowing farmers to sell their crop yields on the private market rather than selling at fixed prices in government-regulated wholesale markets. While Modi and other proponents of the laws argued that these regulated markets failed to improve farmers’ livelihoods and were rife with corruptionopponents feared that the laws would create an unregulated free market dominated by large, exploitative corporations. On September 5, the protests against the laws culminated in a mass rally of over half a million farmers. Two months later, Modi announced that he would be repealing the laws, a stunning public reversal that few had expected from the ordinarily unyielding Prime Minister. 

To put these most recent developments in a broader context, the dispute over the farm laws showcases a debate over liberalization and deregulation in India that has been raging for more than half a century. It is a story not only of competing visions for the country’s economy, but also of the deep interrelation between corruption and income inequality. As the agriculture fight demonstrates, liberalization has been offered as a mechanism to solve both problems. But a closer look at India’s experience with liberalization complicates this theory. Liberalization may have helped fuel the country’s precipitous economic rise, but it only further exacerbated income inequality while further entrenching the systems of corruption that favor the country’s wealthy elite. At best, unchecked liberalization in India has simply repackaged corruption in new forms; at worst, it has allowed corruption to flourish.

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Keep the Dogmatic Privatization Argument Out of Style

It used to be trendy to talk about privatization as the solution for corruption. The World Bank, for example, declared back in 1997 that “any reform that increases the competitiveness of the economy will reduce incentives for corrupt behavior. Thus policies that lower controls on foreign trade, remove entry barriers to private industry, and privatize state firms in a way that ensures competition will all support the fight [against corruption].” (See also here, here, and here.) Although this theory declined rapidly after its peak in the 1990s, anticorruption policy ideas, like fashion, seem to be cyclical. Even as the privatization dogma has become démodé in Western anticorruption circles, it has gained new life elsewhere. As “privatization as a solution to corruption” debates reemerge in India and the Philippines, it’s worth reexamining the flaws in such policy proposals that made them fall out of favor twenty years ago.

The logic behind the idea that privatization inherently(or at least usually)decreases corruption is the notion that private shareholders are more interested than government bureaucrats in the efficient usage of whatever resources they control, and are therefore more likely to crack down on corruption. Relatedly, competition in the private market should favor those entities that can provide a service most efficiently—and if graft is inefficient, as many believe, market competition should drive corruption down. On top of this, private organizations also reduce corruption by offering more competitive wages, which means that employees aren’t forced to turn to corrupt means to supplement their incomes.

That’s the theory. The problem is that it isn’t supported by empirical evidence. Starting in the early 2000s and continuing well into the present, scholarship examining the aftermath of the privatization wave of the 1990s has repeatedly found that privatization has been largely unhelpful, and in some cases outright detrimental, to efforts to bring corruption under control (see here, here, here, here, here and here, to cite but a few sources). Why is this? Three main problems stand out:

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New Podcast Episode, Featuring Fernanda Odilla and Anwesha Chakraborty

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, my colleague Nils Köbis interviews Fernanda Odilla and Anwesha Chakraborty, two researchers studying how technology can be used to assist bottom-up anticorruption efforts–particularly, though not exclusively, in Brazil and India. The interview covers a range of initiatives in this category, discussing their strengths, limitations, and future possibilities. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations: KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

Why Paying the Media to Uncover Corruption Would Work in India

Jennifer Kline’s recent post on this blog proposed a novel way to support and encourage investigative journalism that exposes corruption: When such exposés result in legal actions that impose substantial monetary penalties on wrongdoers, the responsible media outlet should receive a percentage of the penalty as a reward—comparable to how some countries have programs that pay whistleblowers a percentage of any monetary recoveries that result from the original information that the whistleblowers supplied. While Jennifer’s discussion of this idea was fairly general, and seemed to have in mind implementation in countries like the United States, her proposal may be especially suitable for a country like India. 

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Corruption at the Heart of India’s Coronavirus Crisis? Prime Minister Modi Must Answer for the PM Cares Fund

India’s unfathomable Covid tragedy has left the country gasping for breath, and no oxygen can be found. Hospitals are overrun, and are often unable to help even those lucky enough to be admitted. Desperate relatives are turning to social media and the black market for help, as beleaguered crematoriums shift from unprecedented 24/7 hours to the horrors of mass cremation to keep up with demand. In the midst of this appalling tragedy looms the question: Why was the government so unprepared? And, more specifically, whatever happened to the billions of dollars raised last year through the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (known as the “PM Cares Fund”)? 

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India’s Agriculture Reform Bills May Not Be Perfect, But They Can Help Fight Rampant Corruption

India’s farmers are up in arms, and have been for several months. In the midst of a cold Delhi winter, tens of thousands are braving tear gas, batons, and water cannons to protest a set of three new agricultural bills passed by the Modi government late last year. The government promises that these bills will bring about much needed reform in India’s agricultural sector, eliminating corruption in the state-run system and increasing the payout to farmers. Unfortunately, in its usual fashion, the Modi government opted to set aside federalist principles and run roughshod over democracy in introducing the reforms, contributing to the barrage of protests it now faces. And farmers have good reason to complain: the reforms signal an eventual, although not immediate, end to the government’s price floors (the “minimum support price” or MSP) for select crops. While India’s MSP system needs reform, the new bills offer insufficient protections and oversight, thus potentially enabling big business and middlemen, working with corrupt officials, to drive prices so low as to make small-scale farming impossible.

Despite these genuine and serious problems, the main reforms at the heart of these bills would do a lot of good—not least because these reforms would make major strides in addressing corruption as it exists now. And while the Modi government’s high-handed rollout of the bills has already done a great deal of damage, in terms of substance, a few key modifications to the bills could address the most serious concerns about the corrupt exploitation of farmers that the bill might otherwise foster. 

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