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Reflection of Corruption at Taj Mahal

Officials have been charged with anti-graft violations over their plans to develop the site, just one of many such scandals in India.

September 23, 2003|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

AGRA, India — The Taj Mahal, an enduring icon of India's past majesty, is now a monument to the country's endemic corruption.

India's Supreme Court last Thursday ordered police to prosecute Uttar Pradesh state's former chief minister, Mayawati, and seven other officials for trying to build shopping malls, amusement parks and restaurants next to the 17th century Taj Mahal.

The $39-million project was already widely criticized as violating basic good taste, but a judicial probe found sufficient evidence to charge the state officials with violations of anti-corruption and environmental laws.

Their plan was to divert the Yamuna River, which runs behind the marble mausoleum, to make way for the tourist complex that would have linked the Taj Mahal with four other historical monuments. Mayawati's government called its vision the Taj Heritage Corridor.

A court-ordered study concluded that it threatened to ruin one of the world's most admired buildings by flooding its foundations.

The case is only part of the deluge of scandals that swamps India year after year. It touches citizens, poor and rich, who pay several billion dollars in bribes annually to government officials and workers, according to corruption watchdog Transparency International.

Corruption is getting steadily worse in India because in the rare instances when politicians and public servants do face charges, their cases languish in the courts for years, said C.M. Ramakrishnan, a retired army colonel who is vice chairman of Transparency International India.

"If charge sheets are ever filed -- especially for politicians -- they never come up for a hearing, and if they do come up, you get [new court] dates and dates, and the cases never get finalized," he said. "Nobody seems to get punished."

A politician ultimately goes "to the 'court of the people' and wins an election by hook or crook," Ramakrishnan added. "Most likely the charges will then be dropped if the party to which he belongs comes back into power. It seems to be happening again and again."

Transparency International, a Germany-based nongovernmental agency that combats official corruption around the globe, puts India 71st on a list ranking 102 countries from extremely clean to extremely corrupt. Neighboring Bangladesh finished last and Finland placed first on the list, which was based on 15 surveys that measure the perceptions of businesspeople and risk analysts.

In the first attempt to measure the depth of corruption in India, the local chapter of Transparency International commissioned a poll last year. It was based on interviews with more than 5,000 people in homes chosen at random from a cross-section of society.

The survey, released in December, estimated that citizens in this nation of over 1 billion people pay more than $5.9 billion in bribes each year. Almost all of that went into the pockets of state and federal public servants, the study concluded. The poorest Indians suffered most because a larger share of their meager incomes was lost to bribes, it found.

"The fact that money is being demanded directly and openly by the corrupt is a clear indication that the corrupt persons are confident that no worthwhile action can be taken against them," the report says.

Cases of corruption are regular fare in Indian newspapers, with the sleaziness evident from top to bottom in the public-service sector.

The telephone lineman is considered one of the most powerful of India's public servants, free to punish those who refuse to pay bribes but protected from firing by a strong union.

In affluent neighborhoods, linemen routinely demand $5 to $10 a month per household. If a resident stops paying the bribe, workers disconnect the line and wait for the customer to give in.

In the Taj Mahal case, the Supreme Court concluded that Mayawati -- she uses only one name -- skipped several steps of the mandatory approval process and gave the go-ahead for the project last October without putting the construction contracts up for competitive public bids.

Her decision followed a series of meetings that suggested "collusion between the contractor firms and public servants," according to a police probe.

Bulldozers and laborers from state-run National Project Construction Corp. were already clearing the ground for the tourist complex in June when the federal government stopped construction.

The 123-page police report concluded that people involved with the project committed "gross irregularities, both procedural as well as financial."

Mayawati denies any wrongdoing and says she is a victim of a political conspiracy.

Eight years ago, she was the first member of India's impoverished and oppressed low-caste Dalits elected to head a state government. She now owns more than 100 properties in Uttar Pradesh, the state's government says, though she has denied that as well.

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