Future Tense

How Computerized Bureaucracy Is Helping India Fight Corruption

At an IT event in Karnataka, India, an attendee works on a computer in front of a poster of a farmer.

At an IT event in Karnataka, India, an attendee works on a computer in front of a poster of a farmer.


Don’t like your government officials? Automate them!

When Thoreau wrote that the government is best that governs least, he was telling bureaucrats to keep their hands (and taxes) away from his cottage on Walden Pond. In India, however, when the Bharatiya Janata Party, the main opposition party, says ahead of next month’s presidential elections that its 2025 vision for the country’s capital is “better governance and less government,” these words have a different import. From digitized service-delivery to computerized bureaucracy, India is illustrating how information communication technologies can redefine government by taking bureaucrats out of the picture, while at the same time showing both the promise and pitfalls of the ICT4Gov movement.

In India, the primary motivation for taking the governors out of government is to combat corruption. After an extensive survey in 2011, Transparency International reported that more than half of Indians paid a bribe within the last year. What’s more, in the South Asia region, 37 percent of the lowest income quintile—in India, individuals living on less than $1.50 a day—were extorted. One sure way to help these low-income households hold on to more of their scant resources is to eliminate officials who might be tempted to skim off the top.

India has seen a variety of successes in this regard. For instance, in a project known as Bhoomi, 20 million land records for farmers in Karnataka were digitized. Reliable land records are necessary for poor farmers trying to secure credit from banks and fend off legal disputes. Once these records were digitized, farmers could circumvent village accounts and directly print out a signed copy at a kiosk. Not only were computer-generated records more convenient to access and more accurate, but the prevalence of bribery dropped dramatically: While 66 percent of users of the manual system reported paying a bribe, only 3 percent of the digitized system did. Furthermore, while the weighted average of bribes under the manual system was more than $2.75, it was just about 6 cents after digitization.

Along similar lines, a decade ago, a wave of computerization was initiated to reform India’s Stamps and Registration Offices—which are known for their corruption both because they deal in high-value transactions and the opacity of the century-old rules that govern their operation. For instance, reforms in Maharashtra included software to calculate and publish property valuations and clearer information boards in each office. Again, the results were compelling: The number of people in Maharashtra who had to seek “help” to register their documents was less than half that of neighboring Karnataka. And while 77.5 percent of Karnatakans felt that “people had to pay bribes to register their documents,” only 8 percent in Maharashtra felt that way.

But there have also been some failures. Ambitious projects to computerize inter-state check-posts—which collect taxes from vehicles that cross state lines based on their permissible weight loads—in Gujarat and the Registration Department in Andhra Pradesh failed to produce results because they were resisted by the politicians in power who had the most to lose from their success. Recent research from the University of Pennsylvania shows that those states with the highest levels of petty corruption are least likely to computerize service delivery processes.

The BJP says that it hopes to use “IT-enabled governance” to curb corruption by at least 50 percent by 2025. Although India has had many successes with this approach, it also illustrates that the ultimate  fate of ICT4Gov initiatives lies in the same human hands that govern the nation.