Society

Corruption Index of various Indian states. Darker color indicates more corruption.

What the theory of evolution teaches us about corruption in India

Corruption Index of various Indian states. Darker color indicates more corruption.

The Manmohan Singh government at the centre has been “heralded” as the most corrupt government in the history of independent India. Since 2008, there have been at least 112 reported scams and frauds in India. According to one study, India has lost over $500 billion (INR 25 lakh crore!!!) just due to corruption since independence! Thats 1/3rd of our GDP of ~$1.8 trillion! Forget about bad policies, wars, waste, inefficiencies in the system…this figure is JUST DUE TO CORRUPTION! Sadly, this is not just corruption occurring in politics, but in big businesses, small businesses and government services too. It is all pervasive and ubiquitous.

Now the big question before everyone is how do we fix this? What measures can we implement to curb corruption? There have been some measures proposed and implemented over the past few decades, the notable among which include:

  • The Right to Information Act, 2005
  • Establishment of the Central Vigilance Commission (1964) and the Comptroller and Auditor General of India
  • Digitization of services and records, minimizing human involvement, using the internet more effectively to disburse services
  • Other recent measures like Aadhar
  • Lokpal/Jan Lokpal/Lokayukta (proposed/partially implemented)
  • Citizen Charter in government offices (proposed/partially implemented)
  • Making the Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) an independent body from the government (proposed)

It is clear that these measures – especially the RTI Act – have had a very significant impact on corruption. Arvind Kejriwal and Team Anna are pressing for even more stringent measures. The big question to ask at this point is whether these measures will indeed curtail corruption or whether Indians will find a way to “innovate” and bypass the system as always? The answer to this riddle lies in the theory of evolution. 

 

Increasing population in India causes increasing competition for resources like jobs, money, education, stability. This mad race for resources leads to corruption.

The theory of evolution is a broad-based theory, the most famous part of which – evolution by natural selection – was proposed by Charles Darwin in 1859. What the theory says is that the natural tendency of living organisms is to change. At the molecular level, that happens via mutations in the DNA. However, once there is change, the environment around the living organism decides whether the change is beneficial or not. If the cost incurred by the change is low and the benefits high, then the change will thrive and spread in the population. However, if the costs are high and outweigh the benefits, then the change will be “selected against” and will be removed from the population. This is termed as natural selection.

Now, since we living organisms share our resources with each other, another level of complexity arises in the form of competition for the resources. If the competition is high, the selection pressure will be high…individuals will be forced to change and adapt at a much faster rate than normal. If you don’t change, you will be selected against and weeded out from the population.

Now think about the Indian society for a second. The population of India is 1.2 billion and the country is one of the densest countries on the planet. Thankfully, the land is abundant in natural resources, so some resources are not limiting. But for resources like jobs, money, land, education, food…there is an extreme competition! There is simply NOT ENOUGH of these facilities! We have to fight for it and get it by hook or crook or someone else will get it! There is a mad race for these resources! Thus, it is not very surprising that Transparency International found that the most corruption occurs in need-based services – like Police, Income Tax, Land administration and Municipal services. 

Obesity in countries where food is abundant is an evolutionary response to overabundance of food

Interestingly, we Indians are also demonstrating the classic response of living organisms to limiting resources. One of the things that unicellular organisms like algae do when subjected to limited carbon/nitrogen is gobble up everything that is available and store it within the cell as fat. Who knows when the resources will run out? Once they do, then the cells start using this fat for growing. We humans also show the same behavior physiologically. The reason why obesity is on the rise in the western world is because our bodies never got to eat so much food since the beginning of mankind! We were always plagued with famines. So, when our bodies started getting abundant food, we started storing much of it as fat. We don’t know when the feast would end…so store everything up for future use!! (Read: The Thrifty Gene hypothesis)

 

This is the evolutionary basis of corruption in India. A lot of us have suddenly gotten really rich. Given our huge population, we don’t know when this period of boom would end and the competition for resources will intensify. So what’s the safe alternative? Gobble up as much resources (money) as possible and store the black wealth away safely for future use. Given the costs associated with doing so are so low (corrupt officials are rarely caught), the cost-to-benefit ratio is atrociously low and is enormously encouraging for practicing corruption! This is probably the major difference between corruption levels in India and China despite having similar population sizes – In China, the cost of corruption is high and there isn’t as much competition for resources.

So what’s the take home message? You can only curb corruption by increasing the cost to benefit ratio. Evolutionary theory suggests the following three measures:

  • Significantly increase the cost for corrupt practices. Lokpal/Citizen’s Charter/Independent CBI/RTI are the right steps in this regard. The conviction rate for corruption-related cases should also go up drastically. As the Chief Justice of India suggested, there should be fast-track courts specifically for corruption cases.
  • Significantly decrease the competition for resources so people don’t feel existentially threatened. This means increasing social mobility, bettering the delivery of services and creating more educational and infrastructural facilities.
  • Manage resources wisely. This means drastically increasing the use of technology, internet, increasing R&D spending and conducting periodic scientific surveys of where the resources stand and are they being distributed properly.

This unique insight offered by evolutionary theory significantly reduces the complexity of the task. Don’t be mistaken though – these are not easy things to be accomplished politically and logistically. However, the faster we implement this three-pronged approach, the faster we’ll be able to reduce the tendency and the mindset for corruption in the country.


Times of India front page on 15 August, 1947

Independence Day special: Why India shouldn’t have existed

An artistic rendition of the Indian flag

Today, as we celebrate our 66th Independence Day, it’s important to note that India is an unlikely country, a nation that should not have existed!

India is the oldest continuous human civilization in the history of this world. Our history dates back to ~4000 years BCE and some of the traditions established in Harappa and Mohenjo Daro (eg: Lord Pashupati who is now Lord Shiva) are still being followed 6000 years hence. On the other hand, other civilizations (excluding the Chinese) such as the Egyptian, Mayan, Incan, Roman, Greek civilizations collapsed, only to remain alive in buried artwork and erected monuments. The other great historical civilization – the Chinese – despite having to experience frequent wars, has enjoyed a relatively high level of stability over the past six thousand years. Most of the fighting in China has been internal and very few external conquerors like Genghis Khan tried to claim China. On the other hand, the Indian civilization has sustained despite centuries of warfare and attacks.  the history of India is peppered with foreign invasions – from Alexander, the Great to the British.

And India hasn’t needed foreigners to attack the country…we have been fighting a lot amongst ourselves for the past six thousand years. Here’s a list of some of the major kingdoms who have ruled different parts of India over the past six thousand years. The following information has been gleaned from the Wikipedia entry on History of India:

  • ~1000 BCE: The 16 Mahajanapadas of the Vedic period -  KasiKosalaAngaMagadhaVajjiMallaChediVatsaKuruPanchalaMatsyaSurasenaAssakaAvantiGandhara, and Kamboja
  • ~500 BCE: Consolidated 4 kingdoms around the time of Gautam Buddha - Vatsa, Avanti, Kosala, and Magadha
  • 322-185 BCE: The largest empire in the history of India – The Maurya Empire
  • 230 BCE – 300 CE: The Middle Kingdoms of India – Sunga, Satvahana, Kharavela, Kushan, Chola, Pandyan, Gupta, Chalukya
  • 700 CE – 1200 CE: The late Middle Kingdoms – Vijaynagara, Chalukya, Rashtrakita, Sena, Pratihara, Hoysala
  • 1200 CE – 1800 CE: The Islamic Sultanate – Khilji, Sultan, Thuglaq, Mughal, Tipu Sultan, Nizam, Shahi (Islamic), Maratha, Rajput, Sikh (non-Islamic)
  • 1800 CE – 1961 CE: The Western rulers – British, Portuguese, French

 

And despite all this infighting we continue to thrive as a nation. And it’s not just infighting between kingdoms. India has 30 officially recognized languages and 1652 dialects. We have people from three human races – Caucasian, Dravidian, Mongol – living in our country. We have people from almost all major religion living in India. Indians are also divided by an intricate caste system – we have several dozen castes and sub-castes in India. Each state, each linguistic group, each caste, each region has its own cuisine. Some people argue that the human diversity in India is only comparable to the continent of Africa!

Different colors, same feeling

We fight a lot and there is no reason India should have existed given such diversity and infighting, but still we have managed to stick together for the past 6000 years. Why? What makes us special than all the other empires that could not withstand the test of time, despite a large homogeneity? I think the following may be some of the reasons:

1) Common cultural experience

There are 1.6 billion Indians today, some of them far away from their lands, like me. However, all of us – whether we are from South India or North-East India or North India – are bound by a common cultural experience. India has been overwhelmingly Hindu. Today, 85% of Indians are Hindu who share deities, mythological stories, customs and traditions. We have all been told of the principle of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam – the whole world is a family! Hinduism believes in multiplicity of gods and beliefs and thus has offered refuge to any and every religious belief that entered its land. Even Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains had Hindu ancestors at some point or their religions are closely associated with Hinduism. This creates an unparalleled cultural history, an experience which no other nation on this planet can boast of!

2) Caste system

From its establishment in the early post-Christ years, Islam has grown to become the second largest religion in the world! It has spread from all over the Middle East to Northern Africa to Central Asia to Southeast Asia. However, despite being ruled for 600 years, India couldnt become an Islamic state. Why? People might find some explanations in having large-hearted Mughal rulers like Akbar, whose Sufi leanings helped patch up relations between Hindus and Muslims, or resistance in the form of local Hindu rulers like the Rana Pratap and Shivaji Maharaj. However, an important factor that may have contributed here is the caste system. Members of the lower castes may have been predisposed to convert to Islam in the medieval ages, just like Buddhism. However, the caste relations among communities were so strong that once a religion was associated with a particular strata, the other castes wouldn’t want to embrace it. Even now, there are castes among Muslims and Christians. Despite it being an overall bane for India, the caste system may have unwittingly contributed to keeping India Hindu over the middle ages, thus keeping our cultural memory intact.

Times of India front page on 15 August, 1947

3) Partition

I really think the partition of India was one of the best things that happened to this country. The extremist Muslims of the Muslim League, who couldnt bear to live in a multi-cultural society, who were filled with hatred and were prepared to go to any lengths to split Pakistan from India went to Pakistan, while the moderate Muslims, who realized the fallacy in the Muslim League approach, decided to stay and contribute to India. When the Indian National Congress approved the partition plan, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan (the Frontier Gandhi), an opponent of the partition, famously told the INC, “You have thrown us to the wolves!”. Moderate Muslims like Zakir Hussain, Rafi Ahmad Kidwai and Abul Kalam Azad chose to stay in India. Since the foundation of Pakistan was based on extremism and hate, no wonder the nation had had to suffer such a tumultuous, unstable leadership.

4) Language-based states

For the first time since the Maurya empire 2000 years ago, India in 1947 extended from the Indus river to Myanmar. Some 450 million souls in the 1950s were looking forward with hope. Most of the newly created countries in the past 50 years have suffered extremism and anarchy post Independence – take a look at our conjoint twin Pakistan! India thrived, and one of the primary reasons was a stroke of genius by our founding fathers, especially Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar! The Constitution of India was a remarkable document, which allowed each linguistic group to have its own identity and its own kingdom. The states were allowed to thrive as semi-independent entities – each given a charge of their own fortunes and fates. This remarkable division may have stopped several more decades of infighting between linguistic groups.

The chaotic democracy in India offers voice to thousands of ethnic and community interest groups in the country.

5) Democracy

The Emergency of 1975 as well as the mini-uprising post Anna Hazare’s unceremonious arrest in 2011demonstrated the enormous importance Indians place in democracy. Despite the pitfalls of the system, despite corruption, democracy is a thread that binds every Indian together now. The value we place in democracy has increased many folds over since the advent of the Internet, with government’s efforts to curb Internet freedom and the ease of propagation of information and ease of organizing over the web. The four pillars of our democracy – Legislative, Executive, Judiciary and Press – have severe endemic problems, but there are enough good people at every level in the system to keep it running efficiently. The role of NGOs – the 5th pillar of our democracy – has been crucial in this regard. Representation of the common man wouldn’t have been possible in absence of a democratic society.

 

Today, as we celebrate the 66th Independence Day, India is fraught with problems. The problems are compounded by an ever-burgeoning population, limited resources, climate change and destruction of our natural heritage. We cannot rest on the laurels of our past successes. Today, we are proud of our country because our ancestors strove to leave a country fit for their future generations to live. The challenges of this generation are enormous, but we must also strive to leave our children and our grandchildren a better India.

 

Happy Independence Day!

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