The widespread crises of corruption and greed being exposed daily in India and indeed around the world highlight a simple but profound truth. The law, institutions and the sanctions they can apply are insufficient for curbing corruption and dishonesty. A great deal depends on the sense of public morality in society and that, in turn, is associated with some inbuilt structural features like its size and diversity. This is why it is a little puzzling that those clamouring for new legislation seem unaware that virtually all the legislative provisions needed to prosecute corruption already exist in Indian statute. The only novelty would be the creation of an all-powerful institution, standing above government, to monitor its behaviour. Such an institutional innovation implies a significant constitutional departure that places ultimate authority beyond electoral scrutiny. And it presupposes that individuals of integrity and wisdom can always be found to man it, and it leaves tantalisingly obscure how its members are to be selected.

The unhappy truth is that the default setting for Indians as well as others in the geographical region is dishonesty combined with a sentimental, self-sacrificial impulse for immediate family. I hasten to add in fairness that in the neighbourhood, the average Nepali is far less inclined to pull a fast one at any opportunity, and the devout Muslim is also less prone to inter-personal dishonesty, although everyone seems to be catching up to a norm that is shamefully venal! Why this is so is an interesting subject of socio-psychological enquiry, but some preliminary inferences might be enlightening. Dishonesty is often the response of the powerless and weak to oppression and severe chastisement. And servitude has had a very long history in the region, with the exception of Nepal, with all the grim brutalities meted out for failures to comply with authoritative demands. Even the brutal Mughal jagirdars and their successors, the zamindars, under British colonial rule, faced severe sanctions for failing to collect revenues on behalf of rulers. And they, in turn, imposed corresponding penalties on everyone under their control.

A more complex set of factors that compound the kind of pre-existing, historically-derived propensity for corrupt behaviour are contingent. It is probably rational to defect and take unfair advantage of available choices surreptitiously when large numbers of people are involved in mutual exchange; free riding, in other words. It becomes worse when defection and corrupt practices are perceived to be the norm because reciprocity for one's own honesty is lacking. The larger the numbers involved, the greater the likelihood of corrupt behaviour becoming the norm, because it is virtually impossible to monitor what others are doing, nor is being found out for engaging in dishonesty likely. And each individual may also rationally conclude that their particular acts of dishonesty are of marginal significance to outcomes for society. These negative structural facets of social organization are compounded when society is plural on other axes of identity and loyalty between groups, who look to their own for self-affirmation and succour, is circumscribed.

These unhappy realities explain the myriad of dishonest choices made by most people everyday in India, somewhat apart from the massive acts of corruption by public officials that breach all boundaries of decency and cause huge harm to society at large. Overcoming these deep intra-societal divisions and its innate structural drawbacks will always be difficult no matter how much education and experience inculcate the one essential factor of mutual trust that seeks to encourage behaviour in good faith. It is pretty much impossible for the individual to discover whether others are honest except as an opaque sensibility, perhaps reinforced, at best, by stray experiences of compassion from them. Thus, behaving unscrupulously to gain short-term advantage may appear rational. But of course it is the equivalent of each individual disobeying traffic rules and everyone ending up infinitely worse off. This is the diabolical collective action trap into which much of life in India has fallen, to the detriment of all.

To begin changing this miasmic state of affairs, the first step is for leaders to behave with scrupulous honesty in public life, as exemplars, although India today is experiencing the grim paradox of a fastidiously upright prime minister presiding over dishonesty on a shocking scale. Hoping this source of profound disappointment might be an aberration, some sweeping reforms should be contemplated to cleanse Indian public life. In the first place, a dramatic reduction of the reach of the state bureaucratic apparatus is unavoidable since its negative impact now exceeds any positive benefits of collective action through it. There is also a need for strict transparency norms to curtail the ability of officers of the State to engage in corrupt practices. And there should be a considered reduction in the scope of discretion exercised by bureaucrats and politicians. This can be achieved by innovating automatic, time-bound default consent that would eliminate the power to inconvenience by delaying the permissions being sought.

Let me now suggest a list of measures that will reduce the incentive for key public officials to succumb to dishonesty and corruption. All public officials above the rank of joint secretary should be offered payment of rent for their residence on retirement, equal to what would be available to an upper middle class family. It could amount to Rs 60,000 to 100,000 per month at current prices and payable until their death or that of their spouse, or the marriage of all daughters or until the last one reaches the age of 32, whichever occurs later. They should also be granted two-thirds of their final salary until death, reduced to a half for a surviving spouse. Conviction for corruption should entail mandatory imprisonment of public officials, irrespective of seniority, and lead to automatic loss of all benefits and pension entitlements. The treatment of parliamentarians, regional assembly members and ministers requires some reflection. There might be some entitlements for long-serving members, but a balance needs to be struck between incentive for probity as well as the expectation that it should be the norm and not an attribute that needs monetary incentives to elicit.

More generally, economic incentives to sustain a morally resilient and less corruption-prone civil society will become an important issue as India advances economically, raising public expectations and augmenting resources available to promote it. However, it is urgent to assess the experience of developed countries before adopting welfare as the vehicle for it since their benefits' culture is exhibiting seriously damaging side-effects. The automatic access to welfare, increasingly disconnected from work incentives, is simultaneously creating a large unemployed underclass and labour shortages that encourage legal and illegal immigration. In the UK, growing numbers of welfare recipients belong to households in which successive generations of grandparents, parents and their children have abandoned the labour market more or less altogether. It is estimated that 8 million UK adults do not work and the cost of sustaining them and their children in free housing and welfare benefits for living expenses is becoming intolerable for those at work. The situation has also instituted a social transformation in which significant numbers do not associate adult life with the world of work and regard welfare payments as an inviolable entitlement.

Instead of blindly espousing the post-World War II welfare policies of advanced economies, which are in retreat, in any case, as their economies can no longer afford them, innovative policies are called for in India. It might be noted in passing that welfare provision is less prone to abuse in the very much smaller and highly educated communities that constitute Scandinavian countries, in which both the perception and reality of inter-personal loyalty is strong. However, civil society can also be strengthened in other ways that encourage people to commit to their own families and to each other. For example, taxes on corporate earnings accruing to co-operative organisations, including trade unions and similar associations, who own equity, should be abolished, provided earnings and assets are spent on unemployment and retirement benefits, the provision of health, higher education and other carefully enumerated purposes. Organizational forms should also be envisioned and sponsored through statutory provision to ensure the poorest in society benefit in order to prevent such largesse being restricted to the middle class. The market is an unavoidable necessity, though not a manifestation of the divine, as some believe, but it can be used to pursue desirable social goals.

Another set of policies requiring investigation concerns insurance. Insurance is the most obvious expression of mutual help, with the added virtue of co-operation between unrelated individuals, separated by time and distance. Everything ought to be done to encourage it and the first step should be to abolish all taxes on premiums and income from investments ploughed back to serve the interests of the insured. Indeed policies should be considered to encourage mutual insurance in every conceivable area of social and economic activity that might be improved by sharing liability. And the regulation of insurance companies should be correspondingly astringent.

The other area contemporary developed countries neglect and India has begun to thoughtlessly and foolishly emulate is the role of the old, namely grandparents, in society. This is a tragic failing that wastes a huge and precious resource indispensable to the upbringing of children and the well-being of society served by it. There is a need for thoughtful taxation policies in housing (for example, lower taxes when grandparents live with children) and other measures that encourage extended families even in an era when work commitments require mobility. Despite this caveat there is no doubt that the care of the old within extended families is intrinsically desirable and their involvement with the upbringing of grandchildren a benefit society ignores at its peril. It is also cost effective!

Finally, it is appropriate to recognise the ethical vacuum in Indian public life sixty odd years of grotesque political chicanery has nurtured. Indians leap with alacrity to proclaim they are the descendants of an ancient civilisation based on the morality of Dharma, though few seem able to explain exactly what it entails. Dharma has an unambiguous scriptural basis that changed over time and appears, crucially, to privilege the role of reason when it conflicts with preordained injunction. But its proponents usually advocate codes based on notions of bourgeois morality, with a tinge of sanctimonious conservative sexual and social mores thrown in for good measure! This parlous state of affairs highlights the dismal achievements of Indian secular education since Independence. It manfully sought to banish any traditional text from the educational curriculum on the absurd grounds it might be inspired by religious sentiment and managed, in the process, to deprive public life of any sense of moral restraint.