Across the state of Uttar Pradesh - ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - poor people have to pay to qualify for welfare schemes. For example, Rs 500 for LPG scheme, Rs 6000 for toilets under Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan/Pradhan Mantri Grameen Awaas Yojana or a percentage of the total allotment for building houses.
The people are resigned. They have accepted it as the ‘new normal’.
But now that West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has taken a stand and asked her lawmakers to return cut money or the commission they took for delivery of public services, it is the perfect opportunity for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and chief ministers of other states also to take a similar stand and ask their lawmakers to return the cut money they took.
In all the technological restructuring of development schemes, the Prime Minister has conveniently forgotten his promise to root out corruption from the country because - let’s face it - if he plugged the cut money system, he won’t have the numbers to show. Welfare schemes will languish.
The wheels of India’s development are running on the cut money system. This is Mr. Modi’s golden opportunity to abolish the Cut Money Raj in the next 5 years. After all, the Congress successfully abolished the License Raj in the 1990s.
And yes, the Cut Money Raj is as extensive as the License Raj was, eating away at India’s social fabric right under the nose of Union and state governments.
When asked in April about the exchange of cut money to qualify for the Union Government’s housing scheme, Prashant Kumar, Additional Secretary of the Rural Development ministry, had admitted that they were helpless when it came to the payment of ‘cuts’.
“We are trying to plug the loopholes, but we cannot do anything if the exchange of money is happening outside the system. Our system is fool proof, no one can tamper with that,” he had said, adding that they had been holding periodic awareness campaigns in villages to make people aware of their rights, and how they should not pay for these services.
But village heads have been working around the system. The cut money system is multi-tiered and runs like an organised network. Which is hardly surprising as India is still the most corrupt country in the Asia-Pacific as the Berlin-based Transparency International said in a report in 2017. Nearly seven in 10 Indians (69%) have had to pay a bribe to access public services, the report had noted.
India, along with Vietnam, had the highest bribery rates of all the countries surveyed for public schools (57 and 58 per cent) and healthcare (both 59 per cent), suggesting serious corruption in accessing these basic services. 73 per cent of the bribes paid in India came from low income earners, it had added.
A study in 2018 had found that most people in India believed that corruption had increased during Modi’s tenure. They also believed that the Modi government was not serious about fighting graft.
“While 38% of households across India feel that the level of corruption has increased, another 37% of households felt that the level of corruption in public services has remained the same as before. At least 27% of the households had experienced corruption at least once while availing any one of the 11 public services covered by the report,” the CMS-India Corruption Study 2018 that covered 13 states had pointed out.
Among public services, where households experiencing corruption while availing the services was high during the last 12 months include, Transport (21%), Police (20%), Housing/land records (16%) and Health/hospital services (10%). Less than one percent of the households experienced corruption in banking services.
“While 99% of the respondents had Aadhaar, 7% of them paid bribe to get it. In case of Voter ID, around 92 percent had one but 3 percent paid bribe to get the Voter ID made.
“Perception about Union government’s commitment to reduce corruption in public services has seen a decline from 41% in 2017 to 31% in 2018,” the study said.
The cut money controversy has come at the right time. If not now, then when will Mr. Modi address this blot on his development-for-all efforts? But if we are calling out corrupt officials, let it be a nationwide movement, starting now.
Let’s start with Uttar Pradesh, shall we Mr PM?
In Mauranipur, the largest town in Jhansi district in Bundelkhand, Misharji’s eldest daughter-in-law Sangeeta was annoyed. She had applied for the government’s LPG scheme, that allows a deposit-free cooking gas connection, but she never got it.
“She got it though,” she points at her sister-in-law. “But they had to pay. We didn’t pay the commission which is why perhaps we didn’t get the connection.”
Her sister-in-law nods agreement. “What to do sister, if giving a little money can get you some facility, you have to do it, no?”
Their mother-in-law Vidya had also applied for a gas connection and filled the requisite forms. But she hasn’t got it either. She pointed to a gaggle of her neighbours, who had come over to hear us talk and added, “Everyone who got a gas connection here had to pay a commission.”
There was loud agreement from her neighbours.
A neighbour, who worked as a day labourer, chipped in: “I had to pay Rs 550, only then I got my connection.”
“Everyone is just looting us. They don’t even let off poor day labourers like me. Even to dig a hole, they ask for a commission. I had to pay Rs 200 to get a hole dug, ” he recalled.
It is not just in West Bengal that officials and lawmakers are taking cut money to facilitate welfare schemes. It is a practice that is widespread across the country.
License Raj has been replaced by Cut Money Raj in India’s race to reach development goals.
“Not a single bank manager will approve a scheme for us without charging us a commission,” a resident of Kainthi village in Hamirpur district said as a matter of fact.
People living in glass houses can hardly afford to cast stones.