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Just Say No

The Prime Minister has established a tone in Delhi that eschews corruption by ministers or officials

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Sir, this is India, everyone pays.” I had asked a candidate I was interviewing for a finance role how he would react if a government official asked for a bribe. This otherwise decent young man was currently working for a JV with a major international company; he really should have known better.

In India, many do pay, of course, but not everyone. And despite the hassle and risk, none of us should.

I appreciate that I have been, to some degree, protected from corruption in India. I am a foreigner and have worked for foreign companies, so officials may hesitate before asking for a bribe. Working for Tatas added protection because of the Group’s reputation for ethics.

Even as an entrepreneur I have managed to navigate the complexities of India without paying bribes. On occasion, that has meant delays or walking away from a proj¬ect. But, usually, persistence and determination secure a path through without speed money. If asked, I can pretend not to understand or suggest with a smile that the officer would understand that, as a foreigner, I could not accede to such a demand.

I sympathise deeply with the ordinary citizen faced with the dilemma whether to pay a small amount to secure a service which is rightfully theirs, or a small business person pestered by a government official. For such people, delay or denial can be disastrous so it is understandable that the temptation to pay a small amount is strong. But I am deeply angered by larger businesses who bribe readily to secure a sanction, bend the rules or condone a non-compliance.

The current government came to power on a wave of public disgust over corruption. The Prime Minister has established a tone in Delhi that eschews corruption by ministers or officials. There is no doubt that levels of corruption at the centre are lower than previously, even if at local and state levels wide¬spread corruption persists. India has improved its ranking on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index and is now ranked at 81 out of 175 countries, only just behind China and well ahead most other large emerging markets and neighbouring countries.

In July, The Prevention of Corruption Act 1988 was amended to bring it  officials into line with international best prac¬tice. The Act was originally focused on public officials who ask for or re¬ceive improper payments and it was not straight-forward to prosecute the bribe-giver. Now, it is an offence to offer a bribe, whether directly or in¬directly. A company, its management and its board can be liable for a bribe given on its behalf, whether they were aware of it or not. The only general defence is that the company has “ade¬quate procedures designed to prevent violations” such as a clear and defined anti-bribery policy, strong controls and constant training.

No doubt, the government and law enforcement authorities can do much more to stamp out India’s culture of corruption. Both giv¬ers and takers of bribes can and should be pros¬ecuted. Deregulation, simplification and the application of technology will limit the scope for offi¬cials’ discretion. Individual of¬ficers with strong ethical standards make a huge difference through ex¬ample and leadership.

Most important, howev¬er, is for citizens and companies to stand firm and hold to our values. When asked for a bribe, we should all have the courage just to say no.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Alan Rosling

The author is an entrepreneur and strategic adviser. He co-founded Kiran Energy and was earlier an Executive Director of Tata Sons. He was a Special Advisor to the British Prime Minister during 1991-93. He now lives in Hong Kong but is frequently in India. He is the author of Boom Country? the New Wave of Indian Enterprise.

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