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Sundar Narayanan on corruption: Let’s consider the role of belief systems

Despite a sustained campaign against corruption, including the radical step in late 2016 of taking all existing Indian currency notes of rupee 500 and 1,000 denominations out of circulation, the perception continues that India is a corrupt nation, plagued by never-ending waves of large-scale scams, systematic frauds, and chronic money laundering, all presided over by individuals with political connections.

It is becoming ever more clear that regulatory reform and enforcement efforts backed by public agitation are having little impact on the levels of corruption in India. The blame most often falls on gaps in legislation or unfulfilled commitments of legislators.

But there is more to addressing corruption in India than just regulations and official enforcement actions. The current problems are caused at a more fundamental level by a mixture of interlocked beliefs. 

Centuries of being ruled and decades of exploring democracy have infested certain belief systems in the country. Any attempt to address the menace of corruption requires a closer look at the role of the belief systems. Value systems, religious commitments, brotherhood and social status are all contributors that we can consider.

It’s a complicated topic where research can produce counter-intuitive and conflicting results. For example, research (pdf) discussed at a 2010 workshop in Hyderabad found the following:

Some argue that certain attributes of religion, especially Hinduism (like fatalism and karma — deeds/actions in a previous life), may encourage tolerance of corruption. In addition, instances are cited of people engaging in corruption in the name of God or making God “a stakeholder” in corruption by using ill-gotten wealth for the   construction of temples or charity.  

The belief systems that might influence attitudes toward corruption aren’t limited to religion. Also included are  societal beliefs, cultural beliefs, or non-religious individual beliefs.

Societal beliefs include views about political systems and elections. Those in turn are also driven by caste, or by cash-for-vote practices and benefits. Other contributors to belief systems among groups in India or individuals might also include quota systems driven process across education, employment, and citizen wellness and outreach schemes practiced by government.

Cultural beliefs include the acceptance of leadership hierarchy and views about political practices such as campaign funding. Do cultural beliefs allow one to respond, question, or even reflect on the practices of the ruling hierarchy? Do individual beliefs reject or accept the practice of using grease payments or soft bribes, such as donations, to gain priority ahead of competitors in business, education, research, and so on?

Belief systems also have an impact on the way corruption is recognized and understood. Some fundamental beliefs might prevent individuals or groups from “seeing” in the first instance. If corruption isn’t seen — in the sense that people don’t think about its impact, or its right or wrongness, or they don’t acknowledge it as a problem to be dealt with, then the conditions are created that enable the wider and uninterrupted spread of corruption.

Belief systems can have a direct impact on the effectiveness of anti-corruption enforcement. Regulators and crminal enforcement agencies tend to prosecute reported corruption. If the offenses aren’t “seen,” and therefore aren’t reported, enforcement lags.

What does all this mean for the fight against corruption? Changing belief systems requires systemic reforms at the grass root level. The reforms need to focus on creating awareness of how corruption damages people and institutions, and how more transparency brings benefits to individuals, families, bigger groups, and finally the nation at large. These efforts to change belief systems aren’t a quick fix. They will take years, decades even, to have an impact. That’s not a reason against taking action. It’s a reason to start taking action right away.

Finally, who leads the efforts at changing belief systems as part of the fight against corruption? Clearly national and local governments and the people in charge of them have a big role. But it takes even more. Embedding these concepts into secondary school level education are critical, as one example.

But in the end, any change for meaningful reform starts with that first step of understanding the fundamental implications of our belief systems.


Sundar Narayanan is a forensic accountant from India. He currently leads the forensic services of SKP Business Consulting LLP. He can be reached at [email protected].

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1 Comment

  1. Great post, Sundar, thank you. If we want to change cultures we definitely have to evolve the underlying shared belief systems or mental models. Research in cognitive science suggests that this can be achieved through the persistent reframing of the language, creating and strengthening metaphors that invoke the behaviors we are trying to promote. This is a fascinating new frontier in promoting ethics. Thank you for drawing attention to this important topic.

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