From Jugaad to Justice: Endemic Corruption and the Possibility of an Indian Spring

Jugaad is a term that needs no introduction in common Indian parlance. It literally means an improvised arrangement or work-around used to overcome a lack of resources. “For decades India has survived, and sometimes thrived, by turning muddle and adversity into success,” observed the columnist John Elliott in The Independent’s blogs section. Indian ingenuity has certainly led to economic dynamism, but there also is a less appealing side to jugaad which has to do with the innovations devised by the common citizen to work around the everyday obstacles the government puts in place.

“No less than 93% of Chinese businessmen say the main reason for their spectacular success is network connections (guangxi), especially with government officials,” wrote Swaminathan S. A. Aiyar in The Economic Times, India’s leading business daily. “Indian businessmen, however, have succeeded despite the government: 81% say the main reason for their success is jugaad, the ability to find [an] innovative way around prohibitive rules and institutions.” He was quoting results from a survey conducted by the Legatum Institute, an independent think tank.

Jugaad is not a work-around or even an alternative in today’s India. It is the only way for many to succeed in their businesses and personal lives, and has come to color the country’s vocabulary in much the same way that an informal economy supports India’s booming de jure economy. Montek Singh Ahluwalia, vice-chairman of India’s powerful Planning Commission, has gone so far as to condemn the positive connotation of the term, noting that “jugaad as we know it is not a necessary evil; it is purely an evil that needs to be stamped out.”

This need for jugaad, compounded by the state of near-paralysis in policymaking at both the central and state levels of India’s legislative branch of government, is driving many into a frenzy of antigovernment and anticorruption protests, visible most notably during activist Anna Hazare’s anticorruption sit-in in 2011. While none of these protests has yet turned violent and many India-watchers and local political pundits seem to believe that the volatile antigovernment sentiment appears to have abated slightly since then, frustration with the central government’s incompetence and corruption remains widespread. In addition, the undercurrent of violent action to overthrow local governments across the country — most  notably among the Naxalites in Eastern India — combined  with the simmering despair felt by most of the population across the geographic landscape, could prove to be a potent powder keg of emotion in the months leading up to the general election in 2014.

The undercurrent of violent action to overthrow local governments across the country … could prove to be a potent powder keg of emotion in the months leading up to the general election in 2014.

Many Indian leaders are concerned about the possibility of a full-blown Arab Spring-like uprising in a country that is the world’s largest democracy and one of the oldest continuous democracies in the East. A member of Parliament and Union Minister described the situation as “a catch 22. The system in India cannot change until and unless the politicians want it to change because the Indian public considers itself to be in a better position than that of the Middle Eastern countries.” Union Minister of Corporate Affairs Sachin Pilot agreed with his colleague, saying that he “understand[s] the feeling of frustration that people have with the political process, and we as a political class have not done a good enough job in creating a more transparent government. However, people in India also realize that their access to information and their ability to change their leaders [are] relevant and [are] tool[s] they are able to use frequently and justly.”

Attempts to Promote Transparency

India’s oft-cited “noisy media” and high level of social activism have played an interesting role in quelling public discontent, while at the same time fomenting frustration aimed at the constant state of political quagmire. The Right to Information Act of 2005 (RTI), which mandates a timely response to citizens’ requests for government information, was a milestone for Indian democracy. Stronger than its counterparts in the U.S. and the U.K., it has been hailed as one of the most progressive information acts in the world. According to the RTI, public authorities must regularly publish information without solicitation and respond to citizens’ requests for information within 30 days. Public authorities must provide information not only promptly but also inexpensively, with compliance enforced through penalty provisions. This act has empowered millions of Indians to combat corrupt governmental practices and has helped to provide transparency on perceived injustices.

The RTI has allowed the Indian public to investigate flagrant acts of corruption by governmental officials, many of whom were previously considered untouchable. Through precedents such as this act, ordinary Indians are developing the ability to hold officials accountable without the need for mass demonstrations, a course of action that was not available for many of the regimes that fell during the Arab Spring. “All the officials are scared of RTI now,” observed activist P.M.L. Kalayansundaram in a 2010 New York Times article. “If they don’t answer within 30 days, they know they can be suspended.” To the extent that the RTI serves as a channel to hold officials accountable, the likelihood of an Arab Spring-like protest movement in India will be smaller. Writing in Britain’s The Guardian, activist Aruna Roy argues that the law has “unearthed fraud, corruption, and poor governance, including, for instance, the Adarsh housing scam in Mumbai and the marking of university finals in Delhi.”

While the RTI has had its successes and has provided much-needed transparency in the operations of public authorities, it is still not a silver bullet in the fight against government corruption and injustice. Among the success stories, most of the information has been requested by RTI activists about nongovernmental agencies. Even though the information must be made available quickly and inexpensively, relatively few private citizens have the time or the resources to uncover governmental misconduct. In addition, the increased transparency does not translate into increased accountability. Without the backing of the media or other nongovernmental organizations, it is still difficult to alleviate the grievances of the masses. An additional problem is that political parties are not yet covered by the requirements in the law. This exclusion would allow the most powerful organizations in India’s democracy to continue to operate surreptitiously.

The RTI has allowed the Indian public to investigate flagrant acts of corruption by governmental officials, many of whom were previously considered untouchable.

As more corruption scandals surfaced, popular discontent grew again in 2011. The noted social activist Anna Hazare went on a hunger strike in Delhi in April. The government’s poor handling of the situation led to a mass movement that gained tremendous momentum, with social-media platforms being used heavily to strengthen the protest and to mobilize the nation. Within days, the government ceded to public demand and passed a resolution agreeing to the three prime provisions of the Jan Lokpal Bill, namely, to deter corruption, compensate citizen grievances, and protect whistle-blowers. “Parliamentarians have been jolted by what they feared could have become violent protests if Mr. Hazare’s hunger strike had continued,” stated the Financial Times. “I am relieved that Mr. Hazare has agreed to break his fast. We were worried about his health,” said Pranab Mukherjee, the finance minister. “It would have caused a substantial agitation in Delhi and other parts of the country.”

As oftentimes happens in India, however, the bill did not clear the Upper House of Parliament in 2011, and the government has not reactivated the process of approval since then. When asked about his views on the anticorruption movement and its results, a prominent business professional said that, “We are sitting on a time bomb, and the naturally peaceful atmosphere now will transform. Luckily, it’s not a pressure cooker situation in India. You can vent. It’s truly democratic. India will evolve, and I am truly optimistic about that.” This point was also made by another business person in India: “We have to move from being an advanced civilization in the advanced state of decay to an advanced civilization in the advanced state of growth. We most certainly are, albeit slowly, making progress in the right direction.”

Historians, political pundits, and contemporary politicians have argued that factors similar to India’s independence uprising, which led to the effective coalescing of a mass revolutionary movement, may be in place today.

The relatively modest progress in combating corruption has led to the rise and consolidation of more radical protest movements. One of them, the Naxalites, began in West Bengal in 1967 to advocate and fight for the rights of tribal people and landless agricultural peasants. Initially, the movement was guided by the Maoist theory of violent agricultural revolutions focused on the removal of the national bourgeoisie from power. It has since evolved to include more randomized acts of violence against affluent citizens and low-level police and political figures. While the Naxalites have achieved some significance, recently being called India’s largest domestic security threat by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the movement has struggled to raise country-wide support to implement federal-level changes in legislation for social mandates and agricultural land reforms.

Pundits who consider the Naxalites to be the precursors to a national upheaval resembling the Arab Spring have been disappointed to see the general distrust and disdain with which Naxalite leaders are treated by the majority of the public. “Tools of protest and redress increasingly available in India’s imperfect but dogged democracy — Right to Information, protests by local communities and civil society, judicial and media activism, investor watchdogs — are showing ways to negotiated solutions that do not require the gun,” argued Sudeep Chakravarti, who has written extensively about the movement in a 2013 article in the Hindustan Times. While there have been some recent examples and incidences of country-wide unrest, such as the response to the Delhi rape case that occurred in November 2012, political parties and officials tend to move quickly to calm down protests before they grow out of control, although they rarely act to eradicate the source of the popular discontent.

Predicting the Future … by Looking at the Past

It is important to put India’s political development in perspective when considering the possibility of an Indian Spring. Today’s India is a legacy of one of the most successful and well-orchestrated political revolutions in history. The Indian independence movement began, in many ways, as an elitist movement led by members of the Western-educated upper classes. It demanded freedom from Great Britain and the unification of the Indian subcontinent. Members of the Indian urban intelligentsia formed the Indian National Congress in 1885. However, it was not until the 1920s that the independence movement began to appeal to the masses, the majority of whom lived in the poor agricultural countryside. Just 15 years later, it became a foregone conclusion that India would be free from British rule. Indeed, as noted BBC personality and historian Chandrika Kaul stated, “The British Raj unraveled quickly in the 1940s…. As a result,India moved inexorably towards self-government.”

Historians, political pundits, and contemporary politicians have argued that factors similar to India’s independence uprising, which led to the effective coalescing of a mass revolutionary movement, may be in place today. “Instability is India’s destiny,” argues Ramachandra Guha, a leading historian. One can no longer assume that India “will somehow muddle through,” notes the diplomat Pavan Varma. There is widespread dissatisfaction regarding the role of government in society, and there is a general perception that a major gap exists between the government’s responsibilities as outlined in the constitution and actual service delivery. In their book,Global Turning Points, Mauro Guillén and Emilio Ontiveros wrote that the “Arab Spring spread from Tunisia throughout the Middle East and North Africa like wildfire. In most of these countries between 45% and 65% of the population is under the age of 25 and faces grim prospects in the labor market; rural-urban inequality and within-urban income inequality are on the rise, and corruption is rampant.” In fact,India shares some of the same circumstances.

Despite the dire predictions, however, the conditions for a perfect storm in India are most likely not in place nowadays, although they once were in the first half of the twentieth century. India’s boisterous democracy and rambunctious media provide ample opportunity to highlight issues, debate solutions, and examine implementation. Growing access to education, wealth, and social mobility will empower Indians to reform their own society, thereby putting in place the framework needed to build strong institutions and to hold the government accountable. UNESCO’s mission statement and founding belief provides the key insight: “Empowerment … is ideally seen as a continuous holistic process with cognitive, psychological, economic, and political dimensions in order to achieve emancipation.” Similarly, change in India will be slow and, at times, painful, but it is unlikely to lead to widespread violence and political upheaval. The government seems to do just enough to avoid a meltdown, but not nearly enough to eradicate the sources of corruption. Jugaad is here to stay, and it “feeds into corruption,” concludes The Independent’s Elliott. “Why build a good road that would last years if you can bribe officials to accept quick-fix substandard work and then bribe them again to let you repair it!”

This article was written by Amar Doshi, Akshay Khanna, Vidyalakshmi Mahadevan, Nachiketa Rao, and Nimish Shukla, members of the Lauder Class of 2015.

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2 Comments So Far

Kanwal Jit Singh

Two things

One Jugaad means getting work done with the means available. Therefore it has two connotations – the positive and the negative.
The negative side has been alluded to by Montek Singh Ahluwalia, when he refers to weeding it out completely. This side talks of managing the government to get one’s work done.

The positive side is getting work done with the limited means available in terms of technology and physical means to accomplish a task. Often enough this has resulted in reducing the cost of work.

The second aspect relates to social change and its impact on governance.

Any change in governance globally is initiated with the participation of the middle class – illustratively racial discrimination in the US. Martin Luther King Jr. was able to introduce by getting people involved and on the streets. So also the Arab Spring.

In India, the RTI, the media and Anna Hazare movement has lead to the middle class playing a role to demand change. This has been coupled with a new political party (comprised of middle class people essentially) achieving phenomenonal success at the recent elections in the State of Delhi.

Change is slow process, and the process has set in. This is also reflected in the conversion of the Lokpal bill into a

Kanwal Jit Singh

Two things

One Jugaad means getting work done with the means available. Therefore it has two connotations – the positive and the negative.
The negative side has been alluded to by Montek Singh Ahluwalia, when he refers to weeding it out completely. This side talks of managing the government to get one’s work done.

The positive side is getting work done with the limited means available in terms of technology and physical means to accomplish a task. Often enough this has resulted in reducing the cost of work.

The second aspect relates to social change and its impact on governance.

Any change in governance globally is initiated with the participation of the middle class – illustratively racial discrimination in the US. Martin Luther King Jr. was able to introduce by getting people involved and on the streets. So also the Arab Spring.

In India, the RTI, the media and Anna Hazare movement has lead to the middle class playing a role to demand change. This has been coupled with a new political party (comprised of middle class people essentially) achieving phenomenonal success at the recent elections in the State of Delhi.

Change is slow process, and the process has set in. This is also reflected in

1. The approval of a better and stronger Lokpal Bill by both houses of Parliament. It is now awaiting notification after the President’s assent to become a law. That is a bureaucratic process to enable the conversion of a bill into an Act.

2. A surprisingly strong stand by the Government in the handling by US legal process of an Indian diplomat accused in the US of certain acts related to employment of domestic help.

This is withing two weeks of the changes in the political scenario as a result of political activity by the middle class and the man on the street in India.