To cut India's crime rate, find ways to reduce corruption

The frustrations and friction of pervasive everyday corruption contribute greatly to India's rising rates of violent crime.

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Among 162 nations listed on the 2013 Global Peace Index, India occupies an unenviable 141st position.

The index, published by the Australian-based Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), quantifies the "level of peace" of countries on the basis of data on safety and security in society, and other measures.

Public-safety statistics show that India is getting worse: violent crime increased by 6.4 per cent last year. And there is a direct link from corruption to crime. Arguably, corruption is the root cause of much of India's violence.

For me, the IEP report triggered a flashback to an encounter with an autorickshaw driver in Delhi more than 15 years ago. I can't recall his name, but I cannot forget his personality: he was exceptionally high-strung, embittered and extraordinarily eloquent.

I struck up a conversation with him. He told me about his upbringing: despite abject poverty, his parents gave him a decent education. But the time came when he had to give up his degree - and his dream - for this gruelling route to survival.

He could not get a job. On at least four occasions, he said, he was granted interviews for academic positions. But they all came to nothing. He lost out, he claimed, to competitors who either wielded their influence or bribed their way through.

This man represented a segment of the community in which frustration and anger are rarely far from the surface. Being victimised by corruption leaves people bitter and suspicious of each other, increasing the temptation to violence.

As crimes against women surge in India, it is fair to ask if we are seeing individuals robbed of dignity and control over their own lives, asserting power in the only way available to them?

Such scenarios are becoming worse with each passing year, as depravity grows and the sense of helplessness deepens.

Imagine that you were that autorickshaw driver, and suffered a health problem. You might have to bribe someone at a hospital to give you a speedy doctor's appointment.

The answer is the same no matter what the problem, it seems. Dead telephone? Any number of complaints will go unheeded unless you grease the palms of officials. Dreaming of your ideal home? No worries, provided you have money and power. (Consider the Adarsh Housing Society scandal in Mumbai, in which top politicians, bureaucrats and military officers bent a number of rules and through various acts of omission and commission arranged to get the building constructed - and then had themselves allotted flats in this premier property, at artificially low prices).

Is there a way to ensure that you get the quality you pay for?

Let me rewind to my Delhi days one more time. It was amusing to watch the neighbourhood women queuing up every morning near a community park, where a farmer came to sell milk. The scene was extraordinary because of the novel method he used to prove his honesty. He milked a buffalo into the containers the women brought with them as they stood nearby. In return for the guarantee of purity, the man would charge a premium price.

The women did not hesitate to pay up. But then one day a group of local men thrashed the farmer and threatened him with dire consequences if he ever returned to the area. The reason, I heard, was that the man had been caught injecting the buffalo with a harmful chemical which served to produce larger quantities of milk.

Today that same farmer might possibly suffer far more dire consequences.

Anger and desperation, fuelled by petty corruption, are growing. Yet I remain optimistic about India's future. I pin my hopes on studies that have shown that violence diminishes as a country prospers and trust is restored, underscoring the economic dimension in all this.

There is evidence linking high levels of social capital - non-official connections between people, such as social clubs, sports group and the like - to positive social outcomes, including low crime rates. And in countries where people know and trust one another more, there is also more confidence in the integrity of political leaders.

The challenge for India lies in distributing the fruits of growing prosperity fairly - without any strings attached. That's how to fight crime - when a society and its leaders are seen to operate fairly, the mentality that leads to crime fades away.