Everybody does it

JUNE 25, 2019

In over fifty years of interacting with government officers and people in the private sector, I have come to the conclusion that corruption is in our genes.

This is why when a few years earlier, a politician from South Punjab said, “Corruption is our right,” very few people were shocked. He meant that after spending millions to get elected, it was only fair that he and his colleagues were allowed to loot the people. He should also have said that politicians should be allowed to indulge in gas and electricity theft, so they could make millions and were able to win the next elections.

Perhaps, the most common misconception in the country is that only government employees indulge in corruption. Private-sector employees are equally corrupt. A purchaser in a private company is as likely to ask for commission as his counterpart in a government department. An engineer in a privately owned company almost always asks for a commission (usually 10 per cent) for approving contracts or allowing bills to be forwarded to the accounts department for payment. But these same corrupt Pakistanis become model citizens when they work in foreign countries. They would never drive through a red light or break a law. This is because they know they would never be able to pay bribes to law enforcement officials in developed countries (unlike in Pakistan, where almost everyone can be bought for a price).

The most common explanation given by those who take bribes and commissions is that they are underpaid and their salaries are insufficient to support their families (usually having four children, at least). This may be true for government employees, but it doesn’t explain why private-sector employees also do so.

Another reason given by such people is “Everyone does it.” Ask a factory or a restaurant owner why he indulges in sales tax or income tax evasion, the answer is “Everyone does it.”

I knew a very rich man who was sentenced and fined heavily in Zia’s martial law days for evading excise duty. He was never caught under civilian administrations because he used to give money freely to all those in government departments he had to deal with.

When asked, why he felt the need to cheat the government despite being so wealthy, he said, “Everyone does it.”

For years afterwards, he used to believe that he, alone, had been victimised and other factory owners got off because they were well connected or had paid those who had caught him.

It never occurred to him that others were honest and had always paid the duties and taxes.

Before the KESC was privatised, its linemen would reduce the speed of electric meters so the bill would show less than a third of the actual consumption. They would even give illegal direct connections (known as “kunda” connections), a practice still rampant in slums and outlying areas. The poor there are charged a good amount for doing so. Those were the days when a telephone connection was obtained after many years.

Men and women would celebrate when they were finally able to get telephones installed in their houses. Telephone linemen would charge a fee to ensure your telephone bill did not exceed Rs 200 a month (despite hundreds of calls made to many foreign countries). I know many such people. When asked why they did it (as all religions expressly forbid theft of all kinds), they would say, “Everyone does it.”

When an Electric Inspector, Labour Department official, Income Tax officer or Customs Appraiser asks for payment, despite no evidence of malpractice or evasion and the victim protests (s)he says, “Everyone does it, you’ll have to pay as well, or we’ll make life hell for you.”

An environment where one is already struggling to make both ends meet actually encourages and promotes tax evasion (as bribes have to be paid even when there is no evasion or malpractice). Everyone does it.

The writer is an engineer, a former visiting lecturer at NED Engineering College