India: Beating corruption with Right to Information
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India: Beating corruption with Right to Information

It may after all be unnecessary to make bribe-giving legal, a controversial suggestion made by Cornell University economist Kaushik Basu to fight rampant, and growing, corruption in India.

Yale researchers have uncovered a far simpler, cheaper, expeditious and surprisingly effective way to fight the scourge. It is so simple an idea that social activists, and anti-corruption campaigners, who have exploited the RTI Act might be kicking themselves for overlooking an obvious option.

The Yale idea: Simply file a RTI – or Right to Information − request seeking a status report on your original application.

The Times of India today reports on the research by Leonid V. Peisakhin and Paul Pinto, two Ph. D. candidates at Yale University’s Department of Political Science. The two researchers reported their finding last year titled, “Is Transparency an Effective Anti-Corruption Strategy? Evidence from a Field Experiment in India (September 23, 2010). An abstract is available here.

Like you might expect of graduate researchers, the Yale duo’s finding is on solid ground. They tracked four sets of applicants in a Delhi slum to take four different routes to the simple task of applying for a ration card, which brings a variety of subsidized products to the poor.

Of the four, the group that paid a bribe was the most successful and I suspect got the fastest service. But wait, the second group that filed its application and soon filed an RTI application seeking a status report on their original application was nearly as successful.

So what happened to the other two groups? “Hardly anyone in the other two groups received their ration card during the 11-month duration of the study,” according to the Times.

Basu, who also is India’s Chief Economic Adviser to the Finance Ministry, recently had proposed the radical solution of legalizing bribe giving, at least for a category he calls “harassment bribes.” That would eminently fit the example used in the Yale experiment – applying for ration cards.


The economist used game theory to “analyze how players will act in situations where the outcome also depends on the behavior of others” and concludes that once the law is altered “the interests of the bribe giver and the bribe taker will be at odds—and that will help reduce corruption.” Read more from The Wall Street Journal here.

Basu’s suggestion went down largely unnoticed in Indian political circles. But The Hindu’s Rural Affairs Editor P. Sainath wrote a scathing criticism of Basu’s proposal, calling it “something like a plan to make sailing less risky issued by the Chief Officer of the Titanic between the first and the second icebergs.” Of course, many of us are unlikely to agree with the Magsaysay Award winner but he is surely worthy of a read.