Peter Theobald shares his experiences from the protest at Mumbai’s Azad Maidan, in support of a strong anti-corruption law
So, yesterday (Friday, 19 August) I decided that if a 74-year-old Gandhian had already fasted for four days, for all of us, what is my excuse, particularly given my past history in this matter? Also, I had been putting off my scheduled three-day fast for quite a while, this is as good a reason as any to re-start this practice that was any way good for my health. Only I was thinking, given the long break, would my body still respond the same way? Only one way to find out - Try!
So as usual, I told-or rather requested-my body, that I am going to begin a three-day fast tomorrow, so please adjust to being without food for three days. I had found in the past that this ensured that the three-day fast passed without a single hunger pang-something amazing, since normally I get severe hunger pangs even if I delay one meal. But this little request resulted that during the three days, I might feel tired, sleepy, a bit weak, headache, dry throat etc, in fact a lot of feelings-but anything but hunger!
And so it was, that in the morning, suitably armed with two bottles of water, a change of clothes and a thin sheet if I had to spend the night, I left for Azad Maidan. This time I did not lie to my son. After an initial protest, he accepted it, gave me a hug, and went back to play. Good, at least I got that right this time.
I reached the venue to find a small army of TV and police vans parked outside, and a contingent of about 50 policemen and women scattered around. I went to the stage, where about 50 people were quietly sitting, some reclining, assuming that they were fasting. I was politely told, with folded hands, "Yes, but you see, the stage is full, you are on day one of your fast; many of these people are fasting for five days and need to stretch out a bit, there is no room for more people now, so please sit in the front row of the audience. You can join on the stage tomorrow."
So I sat there, watching with increasing amazement as a series of people, as motley a group as you can imagine, continuously took the stage one after the other... and echoed almost the same thing. It did not matter if it is was an illiterate farmer from Ralegan Siddhi, or an IT engineer from TCS, or a banker from Nomura Financial Services, or a housewife, if you removed their external identity, it was as if it was one person speaking. They looked the same, in simple clothes, an Anna cap, and a black armband. And they spoke the same language. And it was clear to see that they were speaking from their heart. Patriotic songs, couplets, slogans, and they were saying the most incredible things... I made a few notes...
A municipal teacher-transferred 12 times in 18 years for opposing corruption-now on her fifth day of fast. "By fasting I am not doing an upkar (favour) to anybody; it is for myself."
The 65-year-old event co-ordinator with indefatigable energy. "We want no violent words, no negativity. Nothing against any person. We are not fighting to change the government, but to change the system."
A five-year-old child, sang a patriotic song that brought tears to my eyes.
Indian Spiderman Gaurav Sharma, who climbed a 16-storey building in the rain in eight minutes, to hoist the Indian flag, to protest against corruption: "I did not take permission to do this, since I do not need permission to fight for my independence."
An MBA on his fifth day of the fast waxed eloquent. "Lathi/bullet khayenge, Jan Lokpal le ayenge" (We will brave batons and bullets, but get the Jan Lokpal Bill passed.)
An advocate: "Khoon ki Holi khelenge - lekein apni khoon ka. Ahimsak doosron ka khoon nahin bahate". (We will play Holi with blood if required-but our blood. Non-violent people do not shed other's blood.)
An event organiser called another person on stage, to share his slogan, saying "Taking credit for another person's idea is also corruption."
Many of these persons spoke so fluently, with so much passion, energy, without a trace of fatigue that it was difficult to believe they had not had a morsel to eat for five days. I was beginning to understand what Anna Hazare meant when he said, "I get my energy from all of you".
A retired police inspector. A housewife. "Fasting increases your atma-shakti. Strength of the soul."
A 11-year-old who was fasting for a day. Many youngsters from schools and colleges were given the mike and they spoke with a clarity and wisdom and understanding of the situation that belied their years.
It was getting more crowded now. Groups of people kept pouring in from everywhere. Cuffe Parade Residents Association-who says the rich don't care? Passengers on the Jan Lokpal Express. A group from this company, this bank, that IT company, who had left their laptops behind and were carrying a flag instead. A school child whose father was a Congress party leader. One youngster who ran 14 km from Wadala to Azad Maidan, waving the Indian Tricolour, all the way, and then came on stage to say his piece, that he was fasting for the day. An illiterate farmer from Anna Hazare's hometown, who in chaste Marathi, told us about Anna Hazare's background, cheerfully admitting that it was the first time he was holding a mike in his hand, and addressing any kind of audience.
Parivartan laney key like samay aur samaj chahiye. Ab hamare paas dono hain. Agar abhi nahin to kabhi nahin. (To usher in change, we need understanding and time. Now we have both. If not now, then never.)
"I got tired of reading the number of zeros in the amount of money swindled, but these guys did not get tired eating up this amount of money."
A blind man was helped to his seat.
A sixth standard girl: "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, Anna Hazare is the Super Star."
And finally the one casualty of the day. Dipesh, an 18-year-old student, on the fifth day of his fast, who collapsed on stage while addressing the audience. "Sorry I don't have the energy to share my poem, but ..." A collective gasp rose from the participants. Dipesh was promptly attended to by volunteer doctors who have been available 24x7 to care for the fasters. Another person took the mike and said calmly, "He is being taken care of, do not worry." And the next person came on stage, exhorting the audience with the cry: "Vande Mataram. Don't worry, I too am fasting. Nothing will happen to me."
Another speaker said: "See how much these people are going through. How much more does the government want to torment them?" Torment indeed. The police have not given permission for the fasters to sleep on the site. So every day, they have to go to a dormitory a few km away, kindly provided by a Jain Association, rest there and come back the next day. Think about doing that on the fifth day of a fast.
The rest of the day went off in a blur. Speaker after speaker, slogan after slogan. Fifty more in line to speak. The atmosphere was electric. I too felt no hunger. I stopped taking notes. It was clear that history is in the making. The genie is out of the bottle. And it can't be put back.
Some citizens are disturbed that Team Anna will not listen to other viewpoints on a strong anti-corruption law. There is also concern about who a powerful Lokpal will be accountable to
While Anna Hazare's call for strong ombudsmen against corruption has gone from strength to strength, his ultimatum to the government on tabling his Jan Lokpal Bill by 31st August does not seem to have gone down well with many. At the same time, some citizens think that Anna must also consider suggestions offered by other groups and individuals-like Ms Aruna Roy and her group-instead of being rigid about his draft.
The National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI) activist Ms Roy recently presented an alternate version of the Lokpal Bill, which is quite different from those proposed by the government or Anna Hazare. However, Team Anna has apparently cold-shouldered the proposal.
Noted RTI activist Bhaskar Prabhu says, "Setting aside the NCPRI'sdraft is something I consider erroneous." He has also expressed scepticism over the shape the movement has taken and he thinks that it should go beyond the popular uproar and manifest itself in concrete forms. The idea that corruption will vanish after the Lokpal is set up is too simplistic.
One of the troubling aspects of Anna's Jan Lokpal Bill is the question of accountability. There is confusion about who this immensely powerful body should be answerable to. The NCPRI version has sought to fill up this lacuna. "The Joint Committee was to hear suggestions from all as to how the prime minister or the judiciary should be brought under the Lokpal. They did not hear the NCPRI and so it is NCPRI's right to suggest their deferred version," Mr Prabhu said.
The NCPRI version suggests that there should be three nodal bodies, instead of one. Also, there are suggestions on strengthening the existing bodies, the Judicial Accountability Bill, and something for the protection of whistleblower.
However, Team Anna has been unwilling to accept any changes to its draft or to discuss its contents.
Ms Roy said, "There have been public meetings, but few consultations on the content of the Act in detail. Every critique was attributed to wrong intent and viewed with suspicion and mistrust by the civil society members of the Joint Committee. A critique of the Bill has evoked sharp reactions, and statements have been made that disagreement with the draft was tantamount to promoting corruption. We were baffled by such statements."
EAS Sarma, former power and finance secretary now turned activist says, "It is not an easy task for any one to come up with a fool-proof behemoth of a system that will eliminate corruption. The strength of civil society lies in its ability to sort out its internal differences and develop a healthy consensus."
Some other citizens, too, have voiced there concerns about the Lokpal as envisioned by Team Anna which appears too powerful. Rajaram Bojji, former managing director of the Konkan Railways, said, "If thousands of inspectors of Lokpal, spread out and start descending on every office, even routine work gets dislocated."
He thinks that in most cases vigilance bodies have victimised more innocent people than culprits. The proposed Lokpal with its vast powers can abuse its authority; considering that its functioning will be the same as others. Moreover, the scope of the Lokpal, as suggested, is too broad. In that case, there will be an overload, and cases/files will soon start to pile up like it has happened with the judiciary.
But Hazare's movement condemns the entire system, which many citizens feel is pushing the envelope too far. "We are one nation and it is unfair to treat the entire group of public servants to be useless and dishonest. That includes the politicians. It does not mean we condemn the entire system. We have done well in spite of some bad guys," says Mr Bojji.
Economic incentives of agents who run the institution are to enrich themselves and they will either corrupt or prevent other members of the institution who might have the task of stopping the theft. But if corruption is exposed and the disincentives are high, then corruption would cease
Last week, veteran Indian activist Anna Hazare was arrested hours before launching a hunger protest. His cause is corruption. He is demanding that the government pass a stronger law to combat corruption. The government rather disingenuously threw him in prison. Prime minister Manmohan Singh says that Mr Hazare's methods of protest, which includes hunger strike, posed "grave consequences" for Indian democracy.
Still, Mr Singh's remarks and his government's actions are hardly surprising and go to the heart of the problem of corruption. For contrary to its definition, corruption is not a moral issue, it is an economic issue, a law and economic issue.
Laws are provided by the state. Each and every law guides behavior by providing incentives and disincentives. For example a law governing criminal conduct, like stealing, provides the disincentive of incarceration. Some laws provide economic disincentives like fines. Other laws provide economic incentives. An example would be a tax law that provides you with a special tax rate if you take certain actions.
Most legislatures and governments feel that they can solve problems with laws. They can't. There are very real limits to what laws can do. The reason has to do with enforcement. Some laws cannot be enforced. For example, laws relating to certain goods or services like drugs and prostitution are basically impossible to enforce. The reason is that the economic demand for these goods and services are widespread.
Other laws concerning the market are also difficult to enforce. The Chinese feel that they can control inflation with laws relating to price controls, but these always fail. Their attempt to restrict exports of rare earth metals just led to smuggling. Any international investment banker worth their salt can circumvent regulations or utilise regulatory arbitrage to lessen their effect.
The same problem exists with corruption. The problem is that the government is trying to use law to cleanse itself, but that is an enormous conflict of interest. It is really an agency problem.
In game theory, managers, elected officials and even police officers are agents. Managers are the agents of a principal, the owner or shareholders. Elected officials, bureaucrats and security personnel are agents of citizens. The best move for an agent is to cheat the principal. The principal hires a watchdog and the agent's best move is to suborn the watchdog. As long as the institution has the job of policing itself, it will fail. The economic incentives of the agents, who run the institution, are to enrich themselves and they will either corrupt or prevent other members of the institution who might have the task of stopping the theft. So in many ways it does not matter how strong the anti-corruption law is. As prime minister Mr Singh has aptly illustrated, it is not in his best interests to stop what has helped keep his party in power.
This does not mean that citizens are helpless. It does mean that there are limits to what a strong anti-corruption law can do. The solution though might lie elsewhere. The best way to control corruption is to deal with the asymmetries of information and economic incentives. If corruption is exposed and if the disincentives are so high, then the corruption would cease.
Fortunately, we live in a time where each and every owner of a cell phone has access to millions as never before. You don't even need a computer. Your cell phone allows you the ability to network and that power allows all of us to expose corruption. The other part is to provide economic and social disincentives.
One thing that Mr Hazare's campaign has shown is that you can market anti-corruption. But why stop with just hunger strikes or inflammatory editorials? Make it a contest. In the United States and even Afghanistan there are televised contests and prizes for amateur performers. Why not have televised contests for whistle blowers? Whistle blowers, or enforcement personnel, should not only receive some sort of immunity, but celebrity status, cash rewards, honorary medals, titles, sinecures or automatic political office granted not by the government, but by cell phone vote. Cash could be generated by fines from both personal and corporate liability.
Corrupt officials should not be neglected. There should be contests for them as well. The most corrupt official should be the subject of both weekly, monthly and an annual vote for town state and country, perhaps on a specially designated Corruption Day. Annual lists should also include all past year's winners. Shame can be as powerful a disincentive as incarceration.
Stopping and preventing corruption is certainly possible, but to do so we have to recognise the limits of the law. If the institution is corrupt, which it is by definition, so will the law. But that does not mean that society is completely helpless. It just has to know how to advertise.
(The writer is president of Emerging Market Strategies and can be contacted at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.)