In India, Will Corruption Slow Growth or Will Growth Slow Corruption?Published: May 13, 2009
Now that India is playing an ever-larger role in the world economy, the issue of corruption, in both the private and public sectors, is coming into sharper focus. Two scenarios are possible: As India's multinational corporations develop both economic and political muscle, they may act as a broom, sweeping corruption from the economic sphere. On the other hand, entrenched practices may prove the stronger force, and corruption could end up being a significant brake on India's economic rise.
The License Raj and the Spoils System
One strand in the knot of corruption is the legacy of the License Raj, which ended in the early 1990s. The system created bureaucracies that were all but self-perpetuating. In a context where government workers were routinely underpaid, graft became an industry all its own. Civil servants were, and remain, anything but disinterested administrators.
Wharton management professor Jitendra Singh and Ravi Ramamurti, professor of international business at Northeastern University, have been studying the emergence of multinational corporations in emerging economies such as India. In late June 2007, they organized a conference on this topic in Boston, co-sponsored by the Mack Center for Technological Innovation and the Center for Leadership and Change Management -- both at Wharton -- and the Center for Emerging Markets at Northeastern University.
"In the bad old days," Singh said in an interview, "particularly pre-1991, when the License Raj held sway, and by design, all kinds of free market mechanisms were hobbled or stymied, and corruption emerged almost as an illegitimate price mechanism, a shadowy quasi-market, such that scarce resources could still be allocated within the economy, and decisions could get made. Of course, this does not in any way condone the occurrence of such corruption. The shameful part of all this was that while value was captured by some people at the expense of others, it did not go to those who created the value, as it should in a fair and equitable system."
The real failing, he said, "was a distortion of incentives within the economy, such that people began expending efforts toward fundamentally unproductive behaviors because they saw that such behaviors could lead to short-term gains. Thus, cultivating those in positions of power who could bestow favors became more important than coming up with an innovative product design. The latter was not as important, anyway, because most markets were closed to foreign competition -- automobiles, for example -- and if you had a product, no matter how uncompetitive compared to global peers', it would sell. These were largely distortions created by the politico-economic regime. While a sea change has occurred in the years following 1991, some of the distorted cultural norms that took hold during the earlier period are slowly being repaired by the sheer forces of competition. The process will be long and slow, however. It will not change overnight."
The costs of corruption are manifest in various parts of the economy. Inadequate infrastructure, of course, is widely recognized as a serious impediment to India's advancement. Producing valuable goods is of limited utility if they cannot be transported in a timely fashion, for example. Transparency International estimates that Indian truckers pay something in the neighborhood of $5 billion annually in bribes to keep freight flowing.
"A few Indian companies," Ramamurti said, "such as the Tata group or Wipro, have taken the high road, but most firms find it impossible to get anything done without greasing palms."
"The paradox," Ramamurti said, "is that even though India's faster growth in recent years is the result of fewer government controls, most Indian managers would tell you that corruption has increased, not decreased, in tandem. How could this be? The explanation is that faster growth has created new choke points at which politicians and bureaucrats can extract payments, such as land regulation, spectrum allocation or college admissions -- all of which have become much more valuable in [this century]. Faster growth has also raised the economic cost to firms of delays in public approvals, giving officials that much more 'hold-up' leverage over private investors."
The Benefits of an Open Society
One of the inevitable comparisons in any story on rapidly developing economies is that between India and China. China has endured a spate of bad news in recent months regarding the impact of corruption and shoddy oversight on the quality of exported products -- from cold medication that killed dozens of people in Latin America to toxic toothpaste to children's toys coated in lead-based paint.
If China's initial response was to attempt to characterize much of this as a Western conspiracy against Chinese products and businesses, officials were rather quickly goaded into taking serious action. In July, the government executed Zheng Xiaoyu, who headed China's State Food and Drug Administration from 1997 to 2006.
"The good news in India, compared to China," said Ramamurti, "may be that at least the most egregious forms of corruption are exposed by social activists or the media." A more open society, by definition, provides more avenues for oversight, more empowered constituencies to ferret out and disseminate the truth when things go wrong.
"One big difference," Singh added, "comes in the form of the legal system. In India, a firm can sue the government and win, which may not be as easy in China. Also, the public at large is much more vocal and active in India. Any group can file a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) against a firm, which will frequently get heard in court. Also, it is the case that corporate governance is stronger in India, on average, due to better disclosure and Securities and Exchange Board of India regulatory guidelines. This [is true] even though there are some fine Chinese firms, and some quite poorly governed Indian firms."
Singh ticked off a quick list of additional cultural factors that are to India's advantage: "A fierce -- arguably sometimes to the point of being irresponsible -- media, both the press and TV; a legal system descended from British Common Law like the U.S. which, while hardly perfect, does work reasonably well; [the existence of] certain rights ... such as freedom of speech; strong links with the global economy through, though not solely due to, the non-resident Indian (NRI) community which provides global exposure; and a facility with English which makes for easier integration into the global economy."