“But for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained.”
-Behind the Beautiful Forever’s; life, death and hope in Mumbai.
I have a very low tolerance for my fellow travelers who choose to register a host of complaints about the perceived weaknesses of the host country. And extol the virtues of their own. It feels like the underlying message is; “if only this country could be more like the US.”
And yet, on some days here in India, after a long and intensely lived four months, I find myself behaving much like the fellow traveler I detest.
One of the consistent complaints Indians return to, as we discuss the special challenges of this country, is corruption. Regardless of whether we are discussing pollution in the Ganga, crazy traffic jams at all hours, visa delays or filth in the street, the Universal Source of All that is Wrong seems to be “corruption.”
The systemic problems of inadequate infrastructure, illiteracy, and shorter life expectancies are understandable in countries with weak economies. But by all measures, this democratic nation is one of the fastest growing economic engines in the world, with a decent tax base...
I find myself being mad at India. You can do so much better, I say to myself.
I struggle to find parallels in the development of my own country, the US. I know we have had our share of corrupt small town and big city governments. And certainly there are famous police departments over the last century that have been a petri dish of corruption from top to bottom: New York, Boston, New Orleans, Philadelphia, to name a few. Yet in most cases, the corruption has ultimately been uncovered, and a fairly clean house made. In some cases, it has taken a strong grassroots effort of protest to get the levers of government to move, but it has usually been accomplished.
Yet the example of widespread local to national government corruption, from petty bribes to massive public taking of dollars by those at the top, is not found, at least in my reading of US history. Our greatest corruption is as devastating, but has the patina of legality; and that is the way we allow the rich to finance elections, in effect, turning our elected officials into puppets for the rich and wealthy class. (no small thing, I must admit).
So how can the corruption be rooted out here in India? A “Clean Government” political party that sweeps the nation and fixes things?
After reading “Behind the beautiful forevers”, a well-researched book based on a true story from a reporter spending four years in the dumps surrounding the airport in Mumbai, I start to get a tiny glimpse of corruption as a legitimate way to make a living. And how it serves as a legitimate business model for those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. I see how a scrap collector can get a toehold on life by slipping a guard some money so he can access an inside garbage can after hours, resulting in an income that will allow his four children to eat another day.
My friend Anne, whose husband is Indian and who visits India regularly advises me “to not try to change a thing.” Of course, being an American, I have LOTS of ideas…grassroots protest movements, a social media campaign, a whistle-blower hotline.
In my better moments I resign myself to being the sage traveller I aspire to be. I rejoice in seeing the wild elephants in the Kerala forests. I marvel at the nightly displays of dance and ritual on the banks of the Holy Ganga River, where thousands come nightly to pay their respects to their culture and religious traditions that bind them together as a community. I listen in awe as Buddhists explain the fifty- two parts of consciousness they have discovered after centuries of study and meditation, and I see how it makes them kinder, gentler souls.
I have already been integrated into the system of corruption, with petty payoffs to grease the skids of getting around and getting stuff done. Wise souls like my Buddhist supervisor acknowledge that it is a question of not the ends justifying the means, but what means justify what ends. A question of balance, rather than yea or nay.
On some matters, we must rely on the experts. In this case, I am putting my money on these learned Buddhists who have studied how the mind works, and letting mine take a back seat, for now.
Greg Tuke teaches and travels internationally, working with university faculty in India, Indonesia and the MIddle East, sharing strategies for implementing international collaborations within course work. This blog chronicles key experiences and insights about those experiences. All opinions expressed are mine, and represent no other institutional affiliation.