Tipping Point

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. 


6 thoughts on “Tipping Point

    1. Good piece Pradnya. Sad to see the un-informed comment on Dhobles of the world. The person should have attended our session. Rescuing 7000 children from exploitation and slavery and hundreds of women is no joke. What he is doing today with missingpersonsinfo.com is also exemplary. As he says, “it gives more satisfaction than a peti or khoka”.
      Ground level corruption cannot vanish unless two things happen. First that entry into the profession is on merit not on payment of bribes. If someone pays a few lakhs to get a govt job or get into the police, the first thing they do is to recover investment. Many times it is borrowed funds. By the time that is paid back, it is a habit. Also one traffic constable is on record to say that he was being forced to collect for seniors.
      The Kolkata model of percentage of fines going to cops needs to be explored!


  1. Dear Pradnya,

    Excellent analysis and equally apt suggestion to decriminalise. If so required, the responsibilities of the State may be given to local trade association for in house resolution.


    SS Puri



  2. Apt analysis of the issue. It can also be linked to recent spurt seen in attacks on police and other civil authorities wherein respect for the authorities is getting eroded and anti establishment feelings are on the rise.


  3. The problem of exploitation at the street level can be reduced by following a multi-pronged approach.

    1. The rights of the citizens who are forced to ply their trade in public spaces should be defined and publicised adequately. These will have to be balanced with the needs of keeping the roads adequately capacitised to carry traffic and not degrade the intended purpose of the public facility (inclusive of parks, footpaths and roads). Some scheme of licensing is required and should be operated in a transparent and fair manner by the municipal authorities. An effective coordination mechanism should be set up between municipal and police authorities, to ensure that they do not operate in silos. Other stakeholders like public representatives should be got involved to ensure that there is balancing of perspectives and interests.
    2. The public-facing staff needs to be sensitised on a continuous basis, about the need to balance law enforcement with humane treatment of the people involved. The higher purpose of providing safe and functional public spaces needs to be kept visible.
    3. An independent grievance redressal mechanism should be set up to look into complaints of high-handedness and corruption.


  4. Very well written write -up Madam.
    I always wonder Madam,why police personnel are always trying to regulate things. It is as if the Universal will descend into Chaos,were it not for the Police holding up the Order. This mentality breeds resentment for we go around telling the society around us what is best for it. Innovation and growth takes place,only when we are able to put aside our own notion of them. Hawkers have been part of our culture,but in that vibrant culture,we want to impose our senitised concept of Order. Regards,AS Rai IPS IGP Vigilance Punjab


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