There is a custom inherited from our forefathers, of paying tithes. This was a universal practice, that now passes for bribes in some less enlightened countries of the 'emerging world' and cushy jobs in exchange for favours in the 'emerged world'. It also takes the form of taxes, more universally. The principal is to pay the ruler for protection and other services rendered, much as one make an offering to the gods.
In India, the government is god, parent, ruler and tyrant rolled into one. Its dozen-armed forms akin to goddeses of the religion most people follow, nothing escapes observation and everything demands obeisance be paid. To get a service, money must be paid. Now, depending on which 'world' one is from this is variously considered a bribe or rent-seeking or baksheesh. I call it a tithe to the ruler by virtue of his or her position for services to be rendered.
It goes from the public to the government, not to pay for the service but to avail the service.
The tithe is paid by the seeker to the benefactor. It goes from the public to the government, not to pay for the service but to avail the service. In turn, the government employee accepts the tithe and accepts the petition for the service. Tithes can go also from one government employee to another, from a private company to the government in cash or kind, from a development funding agency to the public or the government or from a foreign government to the Indian government. Tithes are pretty universal.
Cash tithes are straightforward. A percentage of the benefit to be handed out when the seeker approaches a government employee for a benefit. For example, take the housing scheme for poor people under which they are entitled to get about Rs 150,000 to make a house. A worthy employee, the village secretary of a large village in Rajasthan sitting in his well-appointed office, told me people 'offer' him Rs 30,000 "to get their form accepted". There is no guarantee of getting the grant as these are aggregated and processed in the district office but hope springs eternal. Accepting the tithe obligates the secretary to act, which he does in consort with the sarpanch after splitting the tithe between them and paying a percentage upwards, right up to the district official concerned.
Similarly, junior engineers tasked with checking the quantity work done such as volume of earth extracted, road length built, pits dug – under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme – are paid a tithe of two percent of the contract value in Odisha. Without this, they 'are unable' to process payments and labourers are left holding their pick-axes. The money, they claim, is to pay for their time and petrol to visit and verify claims. This is again a tithe as it is paid in advance to get the paperwork done and payment released, without any guarantee of payment.
The same people are paid a tithe for sanctioning practically any government scheme. Take toilets, where a poor person is supposed to get an 'incentive' of Rs 12,000. The standard tithe is Rs 2000 paid when the person applies for a toilet. Or a piped water supply system for a village, where an engineer from the water supply department assesses the cost; the village pays the sum upfront while the project can take years to supply the first drop of water.
The point is, these are not bribes. They are tithes paid regularly and in advance in the hope of getting a service and a recognition of the authority of the giver.
Serving government officers pay tithes of several hundred thousand rupees to state departments of personnel and administrative 'reform' for plum postings. These go with their applications and form part of their lobbying. To recover their tithes, they demand bribes for services rendered from their subordinates. Sanctioning projects, approving transfers, giving a favourable assessment or looking the other way to condone a violation are some opportunities for taking a bribe; money in these cases is paid post-facto.
Aspirants to the armed forces pay a tithe for getting into these services, not as soldiers but in the supply corps where there are bribes to be made in cash and kind. Some whispers indicate a tithe amount of Rs 2.5 million for each appointment. The appointee, in turn, extorts bribes from suppliers for himself and his bosses to retain his post.
Policemen pay a tithe to get selected and then for each posting, the amount depending on the location. Then they extort bribes to recover costs and fund their next tithe, and keep their superiors happy. The latter tithes are paid regularly, weekly or monthly, dubbed 'hafta'. A cop leaning negligently on his motorcycle outside a shop towards the end of the month, or the start of one, is most likely waiting for a bribe from the owner. They get tithes in kind from a horde of street vendors who are allowed to ply their trade by blocking public pavements in exchange for information.
These tithes keep the state politicians in clover, government officials in favour and the system ticking over.
State governments pay tithes to their benefactors in Delhi to oil the wheels of the party machinery. These can come through companies' government affairs representatives – loftily called Presidents or merely Managers – or official representatives. Usually cash, these channels regularly collect and transport large amounts of several hundred million rupees from the state capitals to Delhi. These tithes keep the state politicians in clover, government officials in favour and the system ticking over. They are also closest to the tithes of old where chieftains paid their emperors protection money.
Another form of the tithe is to provide the kin of politicians and bureaucrats a cushy job in a company. This serves two purposes. It keeps the said person under the thumb of the CEO. It gives the company a direct line to a policy maker. The grantee is of course expendable – once the patron is out of power the grantee is out of the job.
It is hard to differentiate between a tithe and a bribe. Both can be tarred as speed money. But their purpose, and of writing this, is different. One is a legitimate accompaniment to a request, an acknowledgment the request is to a higher power. It is paid in advance in the hope of gratification. Bribes can be paid on completion of the work and do not come with any such moral strings attached. They are a simple transaction to ensure the work is done. Perhaps the blackest and whitest shadings are tithes are an acknowledgment and encouragements while bribes are corruption. Thus, one is condoled while the other is frowned on. Both are necessary for 'civil society' in the world to work.