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Eating Money: Corruption and its categorical ‘Other’ in the leaky Indian state



This article studies corruption in India through an ethnographic elaboration of practices that are colloquially discussed as the ‘eating of money’ (paisa khana) in northern India. It examines both the discourse and practice of eating money in the specific context of the implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 (NREGA). The article works through two central paradoxes that emerge in the study of corruption and the state. The first paradox relates to the corruption–transparency dyad. The ethnography presented shows clearly that the difficulties in the implementation of NREGA arose directly out of the transparency requirements of the statute, which were impeding the traditional eating of money. Instead of corruption being the villain it turns out that, in this particular context, it was its categorical Other—transparency—that was to blame. The second and related paradox emerges from an ethnographic examination of the processes and things through which development performance, corruption, and transparency are established and adjudged in the contemporary Indian state. Corrupt state practices and transparent state functioning are authoritatively proclaimed through an assessment of evidence—material proof in the form of paper—that is constructed by the Indian state itself. The push for transparency in India at the moment is not only leading to an excessive focus on the production of these paper truths but, more dangerously, is also deflecting attention away from what is described as the ‘real’ (asli) life of welfare programmes. Ultimately, this article contends that we need to eschew treating corruption as an explanatory trope for the failure of development in India. Instead of devising ever-more punitive auditing regimes to stem the leakages of the Indian state, this work suggests that we need a clearer understanding of what the state really is; how—and through which material substances—it functions and demonstrates evidence of its accomplishments.



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2 See, e.g., Sneath, David, ‘Transacting and Enacting: Corruption, Obligation and the Use of Monies in Mongolia’, Ethnos 71, no. 1 (2006): pp. 89112 ; Polese, A., ‘If I Receive it, it is a Gift; If I Demand it, Then it is a Bribe’, Anthropology in Action 15 (2008): pp. 4760 .

3 In addition to distinguishing corruption from non-corruption there has also been a move to establish gradations of corruption with attempts to establish where a particular practice might fall. The anthropology literature appears to have an inordinate focus on distinguishing between gifts and bribes, no doubt stemming from the discipline's historic concentration of the category of the gift. See, for instance, Adam Graycar and David Jancsics, ‘Gift Giving and Corruption’. International Journal of Public Administration, published online 7 June 2016. doi: 10.1080/01900692.2016.1177833; Ledeneva, A. V., ‘The Ambivalence of Blurred Boundaries: Where Informality Stops and Corruption Begins?’, Perspectives 12 (2014): pp. 1922 ; Rivkin-Fish, D., ‘Bribes, Gifts and Unofficial Payments: Rethinking Corruption in Post-Soviet Russian Health Care’, in Haller, D. and Shore, C. (eds), Corruption: Anthropological Perspectives (London: Pluto Press, 2005), pp. 4764 .

4 Paul, S. and Shah, M., ‘Corruption in Public Service Delivery’, in Guhan, S. and Paul, S. (eds), Corruption in India: Agenda for Action (New Delhi: Vision Books, 1997), pp. 144163 .

5 See Parry, Jonathan, ‘“The Crisis of Corruption” and “the Idea of India”: A Worm's Eye View’, In Pardo, I. (ed.), The Morals of Legitimacy (New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2000), pp. 2755 .

6 Interestingly, a parallel metaphor was in operation in nineteenth-century Siberian Russia discussed by Humphrey and Sneath where certain corrupt practices were described as ‘feeding’ (kormlenie). Humphrey, Caroline and Sneath, David, ‘Shanghaied by the Bureaucracy: Bribery and Post-Soviet Officialdom in Russia and Mongolia’, in Between Morality and the Law: Corruption, Anthropology, and Comparative Society (Farnham: Ashgate, 2004), pp. 85100, here p. 86.

7 Gupta, Akhil, ‘Blurred Boundaries: The Discourse of Corruption, the Culture of Politics, and the Imagined State’, American Ethnologist 22, no. 2 (1995): pp. 375402 ; Akhil Gupta, ‘Narrating the State of Corruption’, in Haller and Shore (eds), Corruption, pp. 173–93.

9 Anand also explores the leaky states of the municipal water infrastructure in Mumbai. The leaking out he studies is of the liquid resource of water. He notes the impossibility of ever being able to measure the loss of water. I too argue that it is impossible to measure the leakage of money out of the developmental state—and not, as in Anand's case with water, because of the quality of its substance. Anand, Nikhil, ‘Leaky States: Water Audits, Ignorance and the Politics of Infrastructure’. Public Culture 27, no. 2 (2015): pp. 305–30.

10 Wade, R., ‘The System of Administrative and Political Corruption: Canal Irrigation in South India’, Journal of Development Studies 18, no. 3 (1982): pp. 287328 . Wade, Robert, ‘The Market for Public Office: Why the Indian State is Not Better at Development’, World Development 13, no. 4 (1985): pp. 467–97. Sanchez too argues for a systemic nature of corruption in India but located this systematicity within the functioning of neoliberal capital whereas Wade was more focused on the state system. Sanchez, Andrew, ‘Capitalism, Violence, and the State: Crime, Corruption, and Entrepreneurship in an Indian Company Town’, Journal of Legal Anthropology 1, no. 2 (2010): pp. 165–88. Amongst non-anthropologists this take on the structural nature of corruption that hampers development is even more pronounced with a taken-for-granted nature to it. See Jean Dreze, ‘Time to Clean Up’. The Times of India, 13 August 2005; Rai, P., The Great Job Robbery: Rs 2100 Crore NREGS Scam in Madhya Pradesh (New Delhi: Centre for Environment and Food Security, 2008).

11 Parry, ‘“The Crisis of Corruption” and “the Idea of India”’.

12 Mathur, Nayanika, Paper Tiger: Law, Bureaucracy, and the Developmental State in Himalayan India (Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

13 Hallisey, Charles, ‘Ethics and the Subject of Corruption’, Contributions to Indian Sociology 49, no. 3 (2015): pp. 305–21.

14 Khan, Naveeda, ‘River and the Corruption of Memory’, Contributions to Indian Sociology 49, no. 3 (2015): pp. 389409 .

15 Das, Veena, ‘Corruption and the Possibility of Life’. Contributions to Indian Sociology 49, no. 3 (2015): pp. 322–43.

16 I am extremely grateful to one of the anonymous reviewers for Modern Asian Studies who read the earlier draft version through the positing of two paradoxes. The positing of two paradoxes allows me, I hope, to make my argument clearer.

17 Mathur, Nayanika, ‘Transparent-Making Documents and the Crisis of Implementation: A Rural Employment Law and Development Bureaucracy in India’, Political and Legal Anthropology Review (PoLAR) 35, no. 2 (2012): pp. 167–85; Mathur, Paper Tiger.

18 Bardhan, Pranab, ‘Corruption and Development: A Review of Issues’, Journal of Economic Literature 35, no. 3 (1997): pp. 1320–46; Uslaner, Eric M., Corruption, Inequality and the Rule of Law: The Bulging Pocket Makes the Easy Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

19 Gould, William, Bureaucracy, Community, and Influence in India: Society and the State, 1930s–1960s (New York: Routledge, 2011).

20 Shah, Alpa, In the Shadows of the State: Indigenous Politics, Environmentalism, and Insurgency in Jharkhand, India (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).

21 Anjaria, Jonathan S., ‘Ordinary States: Everyday Corruption and the Politics of Space in Mumbai’, American Ethnologist 38, no. 1 (2011): pp. 5872 ; Jauregui, Beatrice, ‘Provisional Agency in India: Jugaad and the Legitimation of Corruption’, American Ethnologist 41, no. 1 (2014): pp. 7691 .

22 Das, ‘Corruption and the Possibility of Life’.

23 Mathur, Paper Tiger.

24 Brennan, Lance, ‘The Development of the Indian Famine Code’, in Currey, Bruce and Hugo, Graeme (eds), Famine as a Geographical Phenomenon (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1984), pp. 91112 ; Mathur, Nayanika, ‘State Debt and the Rural: Two Historical Moments in India’, Anthropology News 54, no. 5 (2013): pp. e12–e21.

25 Surjit Bhalla, ‘Corruption with a Human Face’, Business Standard, 11 December 2004; Swapan Dasgupta, ‘Rename REGA as Corruption Guarantee Scheme’, Pioneer, 14 August 2005.

26, [accessed 17 July 2017]. The prime minister's speeches on the NREGA including the inaugural one on 2 February 2006.

27 The RTI provides that any citizen of India may request information from a ‘public authority’ or a ‘body of Government’ or ‘instrumentality of State’ with an injunction for an expeditious reply (maximum 30 days) from the government body. See, [accessed 17 July 2017].

28 Government of India, Ministry of Rural Development, Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), Third Edition (New Delhi: GoI, 2008). Social audit is understood to ‘be a continuous process of public vigilance’, or more specifically, ‘an ongoing process through which the potential beneficiaries and other stakeholders of an activity or project are involved at every stage: from the planning to the implementation, monitoring and evaluation’ (p. 61). Social audits are seen as ‘a means of promoting some basic norms in public matter’: transparency, participation, consultation and consent, accountability and redressal (pp. 61–2). Transparency, which figures as the first and key basic norm in public matter is described thus: ‘Complete transparency in the process of administration and decision making, with an obligation on the government to suo moto give people full access to all relevant information’ (p. 61).

29 Mathur, Paper Tiger.

30 Jean Dreze, ‘NREGA: Dismantling the Contractor Raj’, The Hindu, 20 November 2007.

31, [accessed 17 July 2017].

32 Comptroller and Auditor General of India, Performance Audit of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, Report No. 6 of 2013, ‘Executive Summary’, p. 7., [accessed 17 July 2017].

33 Aiyar, Yaminia and Mehta, S., ‘Spectators or Participants? Effects of Social Audits in Andhra Pradesh’, Economic and Political Weekly 50, no. 7 (2015): pp. 6671 .

34 There is a story to be told of each so-called scam in India especially in the context of UPA II that has distinguished itself with a number of high profile corruption controversies. There is a complicated issue that emerges from these ‘scams’ though that hasn't been addressed yet. How is the complicity of a single actor—in India's hierarchical, rule-bound, paper-based, processual—bureaucracy established? In recent years allegations of scapegoating as well as implication of actors on dubious grounds have emerged even as the ‘real’ culprits have been said to go scot free. See, for a commentary on the Coal scam or ‘coalgate’, N. Mathur, ‘“Coalgate”: Corruption, an Honest Bureaucrat and a Deeper Malaise in India’, The Conversation, 22 August 2016., [accessed 17 July 2017].

Eating Money: Corruption and its categorical ‘Other’ in the leaky Indian state



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