Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

Is This India's Transformative Urban Moment?

Supporters of the anti-corruption hunger strike by Indian activist Anna Hazare wave the national flag and hold up a fake Indian currency note depcting a portrait of Hazare during a rally in New Delhi on August 21, 2011. (Sajjad Hussain /AFP/Getty Images)

Supporters of the anti-corruption hunger strike by Indian activist Anna Hazare wave the national flag and hold up a fake Indian currency note depcting a portrait of Hazare during a rally in New Delhi on August 21, 2011. (Sajjad Hussain /AFP/Getty Images)

Urban India and Corruption

Corruption afflicts both cities and villages. But corruption consciousness is higher among the urban middle classes. In the nationally representative sample of the recent "State of the Nation" poll conducted by CSDS, 66 per cent of urban India believed that the central government was corrupt, compared to 58 per cent of rural India. More revealingly, the more educated the person, the higher was the consciousness.  Only 49 per cent of the illiterate, as opposed 71 per cent of all those with college or higher education, were conscious of corruption.

Does this subjective perception match objective reality at all?   It is worth noting that the countryside, where 68 per cent of India currently lives, is not where most of  national income is generated.  At this time, not more than 25-30% of India’s GDP comes from villages, with agriculture accounting for a mere 15% of GDP.   More simply stated, over two thirds, perhaps as much as three fourths, of the nation’s GDP is generated in cities where less than a third of the country lives, whereas less than a third, perhaps as little as a fourth, of the country’s GDP is produced in the countryside where over two thirds of the national population resides.

As a consequence, for politicians, the city has primarily become a site of extraction, and the countryside is predominantly a site of legitimacy and power.  The countryside is where the vote is; the city is where the money is.  Villages do have corruption, but the scale of corruption is vastly greater in cities.  (The Adivasi areas are the great exception to this generalization.  They are rural, but their natural resources make them a site of massive extraction as well.)  Basically, the urban middle class is not imagining a reality that does not exist.

Also, unlike the old middle class, a child of the public sector, much of the post-1991 middle class is reared in the private sector.  It encounters the state only when it buys property, applies for a driving license, birth or death certificate, pays income tax, wants a passport, drives a vehicle or has an accident.  These arenas of public life are abjectly corrupt.  In the State of the Nation poll, the police station was identified as the most corrupt office in India, but whereas 25 per cent of all respondents said so, the proportion was as high as 42 per cent for the urban middle class. 

The city may indeed have greater corruption, but we also need to ask why the urban middle class, which has the capacity to pay, resents corruption so much.   In a material sense, corruption undoubtedly hurts the poor much more.  A ten thousand rupee bribe will not economically diminish a Prashant Bhushan or an Arvind Kejriwal, but it can wipe out a poor person for years.  Bhushan and Kejriwal may find the bribe offensive or corrosive of governance, but it is not an unbearable personal damage.

Offense, in short, is driving the middle class mobilization, not material deprivation.  India’s middle class is saying that it does not want to be a consuming class alone.  It has a citizen’s right to get a driving license or a passport, file an FIR, without paying a bribe.

This is consistent with the comparative history of citizenship rights.  Citizenship battles premised upon rights-based service delivery have normally been first fought in the cities.  The poor may have more to lose from the denial of rights-based delivery, but without the resources of a middle class, battles for citizen rights are hard to sustain.  Deprivation alone does not produce a movement.  Analogously, the middle class may not necessarily be moved by the plight of the poor, but when it begins to support and finance movements for cleaner governance, the consequences can be positive for the poor as well.  If taken forward imaginatively, Hazare’s movement has the potential to provide nationwide benefits.  Will the movement’s imagination be more capacious?