Dr. Sujoy Dutta (Fellow, Independent Scholar)

Does Better Information Lead to Lower Corruption? : Evidence from the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, India

01 August 2019 – 31 January 2020

During my tenure at ICAS:MP, I was able to complete my research paper titled ‘Does Better Information Lead to Lower Corruption? : Evidence from the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, India.’ The study examines to what extent the Right to Information Act (RTIA, which was introduced in India in 2009) is an effective tool for poor households. Drawing on empirical evidence from the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) I choose two categories of poor households. The first category included poor residing in urban slums, and the second category poor in villages. Both research sites were chosen in proximity to capital city of UP (in Lucknow). Proximity to Lucknow served two objectives. First, to investigate to what extent poor were aware regarding RTIA. Second, how rural and urban communities engage with the state in their attempts to access welfare resources.  Both these categories of poor were in possession of Below Poverty Line (BPL) cards. These cards entitle beneficiaries with numerous subsidies on housing, food, cooking fuels, pensions and scholarships. However, distribution of these cards is a politicised affair as certain communities are ‘wrongly’ entitled to these cards, while majority of deserving poor never receive them. This has resulted in unpredictability and insecurity among the poor. First, they have to confront with irregular supplies of food grains from corrupt retailers. These retailers regularly siphon off food grains to which the poor are entitled. These corrupt practices bring about negative impact for the poor, who are unable to procure grains from the open market. Second, they have to bear the plethora of corrupt elected representatives who mediate within the BPL lists. These representatives choose households who could bribe them or assist them garner votes during local elections. Given the importance of these cards, they have emerged as coveted objects as poor are ready to pay any ‘official price’ to obtain these cards. This has made local politicians, bureaucrats and their minions important figures in distribution of these cards. This has resulted due to acute targeting criteria directed towards identifying eligible households through rules and procedures not legislated, but implemented through fiat or arbitrary ordinances.

The RTIA provides space for democratization enabling citizens to challenge local power holders. It enables citizens with better information regarding their rights. This well designed act can substitute for bribery and can challenge local power holders.  But poor face constraints in accessing RTIA. First, they are unaware and unorganized. Households claimed their elected representatives (who also acted as middleman) never came to their rescue as they did not understand the problems faced by the poor. These middlemen have a clear interest in maximising that corruption is pervasive. For them, political mediation was about ‘looting the state’ by targeting poor households. Their clear interest was to keep things mysterious as possible; most of them insist what is going on publically is a façade, with the real decisions being made behind the scenes. The second reason that poor lack support from external agencies (NGOs, self-help groups and caste-based networks). External agencies across India have been successful in breaking caste barriers adding pressure on rural institutions demanding better public deliverables. Caste networks have played an important role. They provide information to their own castes helping the poor to procure grains from fair price shops. At both research sites, in the absence of any assistance from external agencies, there has been class conflict. The higher classes believe that beneficiaries of welfare programmes have become ‘lazy and unproductive.’ The ‘free’ incentives have reduced the motivation of beneficiaries making them insolent, allowing them to bargain for higher wages. This suggests, higher classes do not treat poor equally, and are not willing to share power with them. Free incentives bring about upward mobility, leading to social mobility for poor households. The third reason, bureaucrats responsible for implementing the act have no understanding of its ground reality. These bureaucrats construct self-made success stories to persuade outsiders that RTIA works in balance between citizens and state machinery, leading to empowerment of the poor. But ground reality is different. At both research sites there has been no campaigns, external agencies or village meetings (gram sabhas) were organised to disseminate the information regarding RTIA. Poor are not confident in facing public authorities, villagers are harassed, threatened and physically attacked by officials at the time of submitting their RTIA applications as such, the costs of obtaining information is high and in some cases ‘brutal’.

This has promoted the poor to depend upon intermediaries. These intermediaries are ubiquitous and they exploit the poor in several ways. One of the ways is making poor wait in their process of obtaining their citizenship rights. In this paper, I have explored two types of waiting the first is long term waiting; and other is short-term waiting or ‘to-and-fro’ waiting. These forms of waiting puts poor at crossroads between certainty and uncertainty. As brokers may refuse papers as incorrect or may ask the person to return on another day. Waiting creates inconvenience for males and females. For males, they have to forgo their day’s wages that results in frustrations and uncertainty. Females, the burden of waiting is double. Not only there are considerations of money and time, but also concerns of dignity when they travel to offices located in unfamiliar towns. How they are treated by officials and mediators is important to these marginalised communities whose members place importance on encounters with the state as sites where domination and subordination are expressed and reproduced. Even with the introduction of new technology aimed at disembedding application process and making poor wait less, things have not worked in the favour of the poor. Technology has disempowered the poor as it concurs to blocking the application process instead of facilitating it. Given the uncertainties of paperwork poor refuse to kowtow to the demands of the intermediaries. In the process of obtaining BPL cards, a section of poor rely on supplications, while others resort to protests. Supplications are embedded in complex vocabularies of gratitude, contracts, care and moral obligations. These vocabularies epitomise a crucial means of negotiating with their intermediaries. Poor plead for social assistance, and avoid judicial vocabularies of law, rights, rules and entitlements. But they expect the government to take cognizance of their pleas and provide them social assistance. But not in every locality poor resort to supplications, they also resort to open protest. These poor believe that everyday corruption practised by mediators and politicians has resulted in raising the prices of subsidised goods and putting a price on free goods and services to which the poor are entitled. This deprivation brings negative impacts for poor households, who are unable to substitute these goods through their private provisions. This undermines the quality of services reaching the poor, and strengthens the elites who are able to corner the resources of the poor. 

Bio:

Sujoy Dutta’s research publications integrate disciplinary tools from political economy, sociology and public policy much of which is based on fieldwork-based empirical research (in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra). He holds a doctorate from National University of Singapore and has a master’s from Erasmus University of Rotterdam (Netherlands) majoring in economics of development. He has held several fellowships at Asia Research Institute, Singapore, Wissenschaftszentrum für Sozialforschung, Berlin, Tagore International Institute of Advanced Studies, New Delhi and Institute of Advanced Studies, Central European University, Budapest. He is the author of Rethinking Agrarian Power Relationships in Rural Uttar Pradesh (published from Orient Longman, 2018) and has published articles in several international and national journals.    

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