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Two Colgate students from India question pervasive corruption
in their homeland. Now they’re combining social activism and academic techniques to cut it off at the grass roots.
By Aleta Mayne and Mark Walden
It was an elaborate plan. Flanked by five other college students, Bharadwaj Obula Reddy ’12 and Srikar Gullapalli ’13 were plotting to disrupt the routine chaos in downtown Bangalore’s Jayanagar regional transport office (India’s equivalent of the Department of Motor Vehicles). Armed with a guitar, Gullapalli would make his way into the middle of the dilapidated room, while the others dispersed to the corners. Together, they’d start belting out India’s national anthem, moving toward the middle of the room while encouraging the citizens waiting in line for services to join them in song.
Illustrations by Andrew Baker
At least, that was their plan. But security guards caught a glimpse of the crew with a guitar case and videocamera, and pushed them back out of the office. Undeterred, and knowing the sacrosanctity of India’s national anthem, the students re-entered — this time, launching into song from the moment they opened the doors. “[Indians] believe that if someone is singing the national anthem, everyone has to stand straight and sing along — it’s a sign of respect,” Reddy explained. Their brazenness worked. The guards allowed them to enter. Onlookers froze in their tracks, a hush fell over the room, and one by one, the people in the room — approximately 80 of them — joined in, albeit quietly. When the song ended, the students pulled informational pamphlets out of their bags, threw them on the floor, and ran back out into the windy August day. As they had hoped, people followed them into the street, pamphlets in hand, wanting to know more. Reddy and Gullapalli gleamed with pride. It was the first time they had distributed their findings about the corrupt nature of government offices in India; they had piqued people’s interest, and incited an impromptu patriotic act in order to protest government corruption.
Ultimately, they would come to name their efforts “Shudhify” — a combination of
meaning “pure” and the English suffix “ify.”
The great awakening
“Very few Americans — probably no one in this country — leave their houses in the morning knowing that, at some point during the course of the day, it’s probable that someone’s going to hit them up for a bribe. But in India, they do,” said Michael Johnston, political science professor and the students’ adviser. This concept — that bribery is engrained in Indian society — gets at the heart of Gullapalli and Reddy’s efforts to effect grassroots change in their homeland.
Corruption in post-independence India dates back decades, to the late 1940s, according to the South Asia Analysis Group. But, during the summer of 2011 — as Gullapalli and Reddy were conducting their research — the situation was boiling over. Well-known social activist Anna Hazare had launched a high-profile hunger strike, campaigning for a strong anticorruption (
) bill. At the same time the bill was proposed, the leadership of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came under fire for alleged financial malpractices related to the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games and an alleged multibillion-dollar 2G cell phone scam.
Growing up in India — Gullapalli in Bangalore and Reddy in West Godavari — both young men had always been cognizant of their government’s corrupt practices. As Reddy explained it, corruption is such a common theme that it oftentimes forms the plot lines of Indian movies. Awareness of corruption was also discussed openly in both of the students’ homes. As school teachers, Reddy’s parents have witnessed government unfairness firsthand, from limited school resources to increased job requirements, depending on the party in power. And, although Gullapalli’s father isn’t directly employed by the government, he does work for an electronics company that provides much of the technology used by India’s national defense department. Gullapalli called that company “one of those few beacons of perfect integrity where even the smallest infraction has a huge penalty.” He added that his father’s “biggest watchword is integrity.”
"[Gullapalli and Reddy] may be in a position to put information and tools in the hands of the people who really can change the way [Bangalore] is governed."
— Political science professor Michael Johnston
Left to right: Srikar Gullapalli ’13 and Bharadwaj Obula Reddy ’12
Yet, it often takes personal experience to bring the true meaning of something into focus. For Reddy, the tainted system hit him directly when he needed to obtain a driver’s license to serve as identification when he enrolled at Colgate. To do so, Reddy had to go through a “middleman” who would be paid a bribe to facilitate the process. “Basically, there’s a guy for everything,” Reddy explained. “There’s a license guy, a construction permit guy, a land registration guy…” Reddy met his “license guy” not at the transport office, but through an arrangement set up by his father. In rural India, the process to obtain services starts with the middleman. The fee: 3,000 rupees, or approximately $60 (not much for middle-class citizens, but a deal breaker for low-income families in India, home to the globe’s highest concentration of people living below the World Bank’s $1.25-per-day poverty line). Before Reddy even set foot in the regional transport office, he and his father had to meet this middleman several times to fill out paperwork. Although he knew that this was the way things were done, Reddy was shocked when he and the middleman went to the transport office and he was told that he wouldn’t be taking his own test. “I was prepared to take it. I wanted to take it,” he emphasized. Despite Reddy’s protests, the government official took the computer test for him. Within two days, he was granted a license that is valid for 20 years. “That was a moment of insight,” Reddy reflected.
Gullapalli attributes his interest in corruption to a confluence of his background and experiences, which included interning for a microfinance research firm in Bangalore after high school graduation and then joining the British Parliamentary debate team his first year at Colgate. As he argued over big ideas in competition against other universities, he was selected to join 60 students from around the world for the 2009 Global Changemakers program in London, organized by the British Council. Through that program, he started refining some of his ideas — one of them being the seed of Shudhify. He wanted to identify the extent of Indian corruption at the local level and develop incentives for his countrymen to find new ways of conducting business.
In London, Gullapalli pitched an early concept for Shudhify to a World Bank representative, who loved it. That positive reinforcement, combined with the energy of other participants who were brainstorming ideas for grassroots change, got him fired up. That spring semester, he enrolled in Johnston’s Political Corruption course. “It was a conscious choice on my part, because Professor Johnston is one of the world’s leading experts in corruption,” he said. (In 2009, as author of the book
Syndromes of Corruption
, Johnston received the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. Johnston has also served in various roles for Transparency International, a global nonprofit organization that monitors corporate and political corruption.)
Speaking a common language
Reddy and Gullapalli became fast friends with their first
(hello) at Colgate. Although they hail from two different states that are more than 400 miles apart in India, they learned soon after meeting that they both speak Telugu, a dialect native to Andhra Pradesh — Reddy’s state, where Gullapalli’s father grew up. It didn’t take long for them to discover that they also had shared interests and motivations.
“They have a level of energy that I can only dimly imagine,” Johnston noted of the friends. Their ambition became apparent to Johnston in early 2011 when they approached him with an overwhelming array of ideas on how to measure corruption, hold politicians accountable, and examine their country’s system of corruption at its roots.
“To be indelicate, he was our bullshit radar,” Gullapalli said of Johnston. With the professor’s guidance, they honed in on a manageable goal: that seed of an idea that Gullapalli had pitched at the Global Changemakers program. They decided to survey Indian citizens outside of government offices immediately after receiving services in order to gauge the effectiveness and efficiency of those sites.
Now, the students had to answer the nagging question of how to put their ideas into motion. They discovered an opportunity on a poster hanging on the office door of political science professor Stanley Brubaker, who had also been advising them. The sign prompted them to apply for the Lampert Summer Fellowship in Public Affairs, coordinated by Colgate’s Institute for Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE). Established by Ed ’62 and Robin Lampert P’10 in 2009, the fellowship provides full funding for Colgate students to research a public affairs issue of global significance during the summer. As director of the PPE, Brubaker was one of the board members who approved Gullapalli and Reddy for the fellowship. In addition, the pair secured funding from the World Bank and the British Council. Their project would begin in the summer of 2011.
Making opinions add up
The students chose Bangalore — Gullapalli’s hometown and a place with which Reddy was also well acquainted — as the starting point for their Shudhify project. Known as India’s Silicon Valley, Bangalore is “a developed, metropolitan city,” Reddy explained. “We wanted to do it in a place where people are educated and socially aware.”
Added Gullapalli, “[The people in] Bangalore have a history of holding the government accountable and of pushing for transparency.” One particular citizen feedback campaign, the Citizens’ Report Card (CRC), served as a building block for the students. Over three years, the Public Affairs Center mailed surveys to households to measure public satisfaction with various public-sector agencies. Gullapalli and Reddy hypothesized that brief, on-site surveys would more effectively gather data and hold the bureaucracy accountable.
Unlike the CRC, the students would conduct their survey directly outside of those government offices whenever possible. The questions would delve into the customers’ perceptions of the service they had received immediately after, rather than weeks or months later as with the CRC model. And, unlike other surveys, they would conduct theirs more frequently and on a local scale, to keep it logistically and financially manageable.
To achieve their goals, Reddy and Gullapalli created a survey that included five simple questions to be rated on a scale of 1 to 10. The questions would ask about the ease and organization of the process, the helpfulness and accessibility of the government officers, speed of service, cost of service in terms of total money spent and work hours missed, and the cleanliness of the surroundings. Those questions were followed by four yes/no questions to find out if a middleman was used, if they felt threatened, if they were asked to pay a bribe, and if they would use that office again.
Although the two students drafted the questions, they didn’t trust the final product to their own imaginations. They flipped on the B.S. meter and Skyped with Professor Johnston from their home base in India. Then, they took their questions on the road and showed them to 30 random citizens in Bangalore, 90 percent of whom thought that the questions would do the trick.
In terms of their academic interests and specialties, Reddy and Gullapalli move within each other’s circles on campus and have taken several of the same courses. But, at the end of the day, Gullapalli is the political science major and Reddy is the math/economics major. With the survey questions developed, it was time for Reddy’s numerical skills to factor into the equation.
The goal of the Shudhify project is to produce a single score rating multiple offices throughout the city. In order to produce that kind of final figure, Reddy and Gullapalli had to create an algorithm; in other words, they had to give each rated question a point score based on its relative value. The process had begun 9,000 miles away in McGregory Hall in the spring of 2011. At that time, Gullapalli was taking Professor Dan Schult’s Applied Math for Social Sciences course (Reddy was already a class veteran). Together, they approached Schult for a little advice.
“We went through the process just like in class and tried to identify what things could be measured and what things would be important to measure,” Schult remembered.
To determine the relative value — the importance of each item measured for their rating system — Reddy and Gullapalli convened focus groups in Bangalore early in the summer and asked representative populations what they most looked for when they went to seek services at local police stations, regional transport offices (RTOs), and utility offices. “We realized that perception is all that matters,” said Reddy. “Because what the government needs to know is how happy the people are.”
Based on their research, they weighted the first five questions to determine the number of possible points that could be awarded for each. In an ideal world, for example, a police station could receive up to 20 points for a perfect rating on the service scale. But how would a customer know if his service was worth full points if he used a middleman? He wouldn’t. So, if he said “yes” to the question of “Did you use a middleman?” Reddy and Gullapalli took off a standard number of points when the final tally was complete. If the survey participant didn’t use a middleman and was threatened directly as a result, again, the offending agency was docked points on its final score. But, if the service was speedy and the customer went unthreatened, an agency stood to gain. In this way, the yes/no questions served as a check on subjective responses.
Having started with their gut instincts, Reddy and Gullapalli consulted professionals and nonprofit organizations to test the soundness of their method. They reconnected with Schult and Johnston. They also submitted their algorithm to the Public Affairs Center, authors of the Citizens’ Report Card. After receiving an international blessing, they decided to go live with their survey.
Dividing Bangalore into zones, the students identified the city’s six RTOs and chose 45 high-traffic police stations around the city as their survey sites. “The agencies we selected represent a mix of essential and nonessential services, and denote what we saw as a cross-section of a citizen’s life in relation to the services provided by the government,” the students explained in their final report. Since then, they have rezoned the city according to its 28 legislative constituencies so that politicians can be, in the end, held accountable. Organized in that fashion, the feedback can serve as “a metric to judge a political incumbent when he stands up for re-election,” Gullapalli explained, noting that “politicians promise better services when they campaign.”
To gain permission to conduct surveys in police stations, they sought the help of a police commissioner, who also happened to be the uncle of Reddy’s high school friend. “He is pro-change, very innovative,” Reddy explained. “He asked us to write a letter that he signed, stating that we should be given any help we needed.”
The pair also wanted to gauge the public’s satisfaction with the government agencies that manage electricity, land allocation and infrastructure development, water and sewage, and property taxes and town planning. Because the majority of those agencies’ business happens in people’s homes, those surveys were conducted by canvassing neighborhoods near the selected police stations.
Gullapalli and Reddy’s team of graduate students in Bangalore administered close to 2,000 surveys, and more are still being conducted.
Although data is still being collated, the students’ initial findings are dismal. None of the RTOs fulfilled even half of the citizens’ expectations, with scores ranging from 3.93 to 4.8 out of 10. Yet, Gullapalli and Reddy remain optimistic about the potential for change. “While this depicts the sad state of RTOs currently, it also conveys another important idea: as excessive corruption and inefficiency are desensitizing the people as a nation, this statistic tells us that people are still expecting better service from the government and have not given up hope,” the students explained in their report.
The most corrupt RTO was found to be the Jayanagar office. For that dubious distinction, it was the chosen site of the students’ peaceful protest by song. The pamphlets they dropped before fleeing offered simple information and advice: “Middlemen suck. Why? For an average increase in speed only from 4.276/10 to 4.492/10, is it worth all those extra 1000s of rupees they charge you?” Instead, they suggested, the money is better spent on something else, like going to the theater.
Customer satisfaction with police stations was also low — meeting less than or barely half of the expectations. What’s more, at the two stations that received the lowest ratings, between 60 and 100 percent of those surveyed said they had been threatened. Responses from all 2,000 surveys indicated that close to 40 percent reported being threatened.
Gullapalli and Reddy are still collecting data regarding other types of agencies. From the early data, they have found interesting patterns when comparing different government agencies in the same areas, including correlations between high or low service efficiency and high or low corruption levels. For example, in one zone, the police station ranked the lowest among all police stations, the RTO also ranked the lowest, and 100 percent of respondents to surveys in the same zone reported being threatened.
A plot to plot corruption
Once all of the data is collected, Gullapalli and Reddy will create a map depicting the corruption scores around Bangalore. Different colors will indicate how much corruption or inefficiency exists in particular zones of the city. Their goal is to inform citizens — of the city’s best police station with the least instances of corruption, the location of the most efficient RTO, or the office that enables simple, hassle-free home construction.
Between their own dissemination efforts and the press (the students have already garnered media attention in two articles in the
Times of India
), Gullapalli and Reddy believe that the spread of information will empower citizens as well as encourage government officials to elevate standards and decrease corruption. After all, “the government’s goal is to meet citizens’ standards,” Gullapalli emphasized.
Acknowledging that not all government officials are corrupt, the students have been interviewing employees at various offices, asking them why they believe people were dissatisfied and gave them a low score. Thus far, Gullapalli and Reddy have met a few local commissioners who have asked for suggestions and are considering engaging with the other offices to improve their ratings. “The willingness of these government officers to work with us and their desire to get a better rating is encouraging,” Gullapalli said. “The next plan is to draw specific directives.”
Taking a top-down approach has had its pitfalls, however, because getting access to “those who are actually doing the paper pushing” has been what Gullapalli and Reddy have called a “bureaucratic nightmare.” They did receive help from a transport commissioner, who gave them an official seal of permission to conduct their interviews, and they are hoping that other connections will pave the way in other offices.
Gullapalli and Reddy are planning more performance activism — “wacky, crazy, attention-grabbing dares that are tailored to the trend that we observe in a particular office or zone,” they said in their final report. For example, they’re already choreographing a zombie dance mimicking Michael Jackson’s
, to be performed at the government office that has been deemed to have the slowest service.
Gullapalli and Reddy see the potential for change as three-pronged. Citizens will be less tolerant and will be informed enough to be able to hold their government agency branches to the standard of the best branches in the city. Officers will perform better because they will know they are being compared to their counterparts in other parts of the city (they may also aspire to be transferred to a more desirable branch). And, private investment firms will be more attracted to areas of low corruption and high efficiency.
A new spring
As seen most recently with the Arab Spring, when everyday citizens join together, they can incite a revolution within their country. In India, too, change is starting — and Gullapalli and Reddy are among those igniting the fire.
In an effort unrelated to the students’ work, but that is making an impact in the same areas, a nonprofit organization in Bangalore called Janaagraha started a website called I Paid a Bribe (
). The site provides a platform for citizens around the world to report their stories about bribery and corruption. In March, the
New York Times
wrote about the site and included the encouraging story of Bhaskar Rao who, as transport commissioner for the state of Karnakata (where Bangalore is located), used data from the site to push for reforms in its motor vehicle departments. Now, licenses are applied for online, and Bangalore has the world’s first automated driving test tracks, which monitor drivers’ skills with electronic sensors — to eliminate “the whims and fancies of the motor vehicle inspectors.” A number of senior officers in the department were also “cautioned” and underwent ethics counseling. “[The site] helped me get my colleagues to fall in line, and it helped me persuade my superiors that we needed to do this,” said Rao, who is now the inspector general of police for internal security.
And remember that dilapidated office where the students protested in song? Last January, with the help of Rao, it got a makeover. As reported in the
newspaper, the new 26,000-square-foot facility boasts “Vitrified flooring, large windows, well-planned cubicles for the staff, chambers for officers, clear, bilingual boards and signages for different sections, giving a distinct appearance to this RTO.” Perhaps most notably, the renovations also included the installation of surveillance cameras to watch out for “touts” — middlemen and other repeat visitors who might be engaging in illegal activities.
This summer, Reddy and Gullapalli will continue their own work in Bangalore. They have applied for additional funding and, with Johnston’s help, will be meeting experts from various organizations who are interested in supporting the Shudhify project.
“In the United States, we brought corruption broadly under control, but it took a century and a half,” Johnston said. “India may not have that much time, but it also can’t be done quickly. [Gullapalli and Reddy] may be in a position to put information and tools in the hands of the people who really can change the way [Bangalore] is governed. That’s a major contribution.”
Reddy and Gullapalli have dared themselves to tackle a systemic social issue in the world’s second–most–populous country. They have dared their officers to turn away from the graft that exponentially increases public-sector salaries, and they have challenged their fellow citizens to stop participating in a system that stratifies services for rich and poor, preventing everyone from enjoying the benefits of a truly democratic society.
More dares are in the offing, and while another flash mob might provoke a smile or raise an eyebrow, the intended outcomes are intensely serious. For Gullapalli and Reddy, what began as a class project could — in the decades to come — produce a sea change in the way that Indian society sees and conducts its public life. A renovated political system would allow Gullapalli to pursue one of his dreams: running for office and serving his constituents without the ethical concerns that come with navigating a system that runs, in part, on bribery. On the cusp of graduation, Reddy — instead of following his father’s advice to work in the United States — could chase his entrepreneurial instincts in India. He could found a business without budgeting the speed money that he would currently need to ensure a quick completion of his licensing paperwork.
Like most college students, Reddy and Gullapalli have big plans for life after commencement. But, unlike many of their American peers, they believe that they have work to do before they can pursue their ambitions. They must shudhify their homeland. They began by singing with five friends, and they’re determined to have a whole nation join their anthem before the chorus ends.