Housewives bank on cleaning up the system: A group of Indian women suffering bribery fatigue has devised a novel way to shame the crooks, Tim McGirk writes from New Delhi

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The Independent Online
IN INDIA, if you want your child to pass in school, you often pay a bribe. If you want a driving permit or a bank loan, a telephone line repaired or a politician's ear, you start shelling out rupees.

Tired of having to pay off corrupt officials for simple everyday services, a group of angry housewives is planning to open the world's first 'bribe bank'.

Say, for example, that a Delhi couple could not afford the 50,000 rupees (pounds 1,080) under-the-table payment needed to put their child in one of the city's better nursery schools.

They turn to the bribe bank. 'We plan on giving out 'bribe' credit cards,' said Sandhya Sharma, of the Indian Housewives Federation, one of the groups setting up the bank.

In this case, the crooked school official would redeem his pay-off at the bank. 'I doubt if we'll ever do it, but the idea is to raise people's consciousness and shame the officials and politicians into behaving more honestly,' said Mrs Sharma.

Nevertheless, Mrs Sharma and her colleagues from the All-India Crime Prevention Society have begun doorstepping some of Delhi's most notoriously corrupt politicians and demanding contributions for their bank.

High on their list is an opposition MP whose surprise vote last month helped to ensure that the Congress Party Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, survived a close no-confidence motion. None of the politicians has yet obliged.

Their next target is Harshad 'Big Bull' Mehta, a stockbroker accused of cheating banks and small investors of more than pounds 800m in what has become India's biggest financial scandal. Mr Mehta claimed that he had also paid over the equivalent of pounds 200,000 in two suitcases to Mr Rao. The uproar over his allegations led to the failed no-confidence motion against the Prime Minister. 'Mr Mehta seems busy these days,' said Mrs Sharma, 'so we thought of asking his wife for a little help. She's got plenty of beautiful saris and jewellery to spare.'

Mrs Sharma and her friends recently rode an elephant from India Gate, lumbering up the wide green boulevard towards parliament, protesting against the 'elephantine' spread of corruption in government. R C Dutt, an intellectual and retired senior civil servant, said: 'What alarms me is not that corruption exists - it does everywhere: Japan, Italy, Britain. But in India the authorities are justifying it. They are cynical. They say: 'So what? Everybody's corrupt.' '

It is difficult to assess the scale of corruption but one study by Rajiv Gandhi's government in the late 1980s estimated that only 15 per cent of all government funds for development trickled down to the needy. The rest was gobbled up by the administration. Often, government salaries are so paltry that bureaucrats and police have to beef up their incomes with bribes.

In New Delhi, roads go unrepaired, sewers are never emptied and in this polluted city of 9 million people, trees are never planted, even though money is set aside.

Delhi traffic is a nightmare: many drivers, especially of the Red Line public buses, often buy their permits and have no road experience at all. The Delhi newspapers record the kill-rate of Red Line buses, now running at five deaths a week.

The going rate for bribes for some items and services is as follows: A driving permit, 600 rupees ( pounds 13); having the telephone fixed, 200 rupees ( pounds 4.50); enrolling in a medical college, 500,000 rupees ( pounds 10,000), or 10 times more than for putting one's child down for nursery school. A candidate for police sub-inspector must pay about 1m rupees ( pounds 20,000). The price is steep but an officer can earn a fortune during a career of bribe-taking. And an MP's vote in parliament can be sold for as high as 4m rupees ( pounds 80,000).

V P Nigam, president of the All- India Crime Prevention Society, said: 'The average citizen is not corrupt but the system is.' He described how in schools the poorly paid teachers blackmail their pupils to take them on as private tutors. 'Otherwise, the student gets failing marks,' Mr Nigam said.