I’ll start with a well known story. In Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. A poor man is pushing his cart load of fruits and veggies down a dusty road to the market where he would sell his wares and after paying off his daily debt for their purchase, he can save some money to support his family. He has been working the small business since his father died when he was a little child. It’s a daily routine. But today he is stopped by the police who say they are going to take away his weighing scales because he has violated some regulation. He knows the police is shaking him down but he has no money to bribe them. The police slap him and insult his dead father. They take away his cart and scales. He goes to the town office to complain. But no one hears him. He is humiliated, feels powerless and leaves. He return with a can of fuel and outside the town office lights a match and immolates himself. This particular humililiation on Dec 17, 2010, which caused Mohammad Bouazzizi to self immolate, sparked widespread protests, police actions against protesters and after the death of Bouazzizi on Jan 14, 2011, spiralled into what is now known as the Arab Spring-not only in Tunisia but also Egypt, Libya, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait and Bahrain.
All of us in India can identify with this story-the oft repeated scenario of street level corruption and misbehaviour by the municipal and police authorities is a well known fact of life especially for the less privileged. The statistics of the Maharashtra ACB shows that out of 1226 bribery/trap cases registered in 2015, 391 were in the Revenue dept, 366 in the Police dept and 89 in Municipal corporations. And such statistics is surely only the tip of the iceberg for actual street level corruption, and it eats into the little bit of earnings of the common man and the poorest sections. According to the 2006 report of the Arjun Sengupta Committee on Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livelihood in the Unorganised Sector (for the period 1993-94 to 2004-05), 836 million people in India lived on less than ₹20 a day incomes!! At the highest levels in government, however, we see that there are strong leanings towards making policies to enhance and spread out the earnings and savings base in the population, like the Prime Minister’s JanDhan Yojana to enable the poorer sections of the people to participate in the India growth story.
Following is a quick glimpse of the income disparity in India from 2004-05 to 2011-12.
India is therefore at a delicate stage where the potential to break out of poverty is within reach. Yet there is a critical need to ensure that we do not allow the small ticket but widespread corruption to reach the tipping point for disruption of public peace (like it happened in December, 2012 with the Nirbhaya rape case). And for this, the police and municipal/revenue departments have to give focussed attention to showing no tolerance to corruption.
On this background it is important to draw some lessons from the Arab Spring. My view:
1. In our developing economy, with wide and visible disparities in income distributions, the visible government at the street level is the police and civic authorities, 2. High handedness and corruption by this segment of government can push the perceptions of inequality and deprivation of the large chunk of population over the precipice into violence, 3. It does not need any one major event to cause such catastrophic ripple effects as the Arab Spring-a daily, routine act will do, 4. The cascade of such events is difficult to foresee and hence difficult to control.
Solutions: Focus is needed on control over street level corruption by revenue and police authorities. This can be approached through e-governance projects which improve transparency over allocation of resources by civic authorities and also actions by police. Simultaneously, a legal review is needed to rethink on need to ascribe criminality to various deviant acts in the laws enforced by the civic and police authorities-similar to the overhaul on financial laws done by the FSLRC in 2013.