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Corruption : The broken window theory

Corruption : The broken window theory
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In 1982, two social scientists, James Wilson and George Kelling, introduced a criminological theory named 'The broken window theory'. The theory...

In 1982, two social scientists, James Wilson and George Kelling, introduced a criminological theory named "The broken window theory". The theory proposes that when broken windows in old buildings of urban areas are not fixed on time, it leads to vandals encroaching on these sites and leading to increase in criminal activity.

Wilson and Kelling cited the following example in their article: "Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.

"Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars."

As one keeps reading about the endless stream of corruption and malfeasance in public life in recent times in India, it is a reminder of the above-mentioned theory. It appears as if vandals and criminals have taken over a dilapidated building which is the Indian republic; and what gave them the confidence to move on to bigger and more brazen cases of corruption is the consistent failure of the authorities to fix the "broken windows".

The recent Augusta Westland case involving defence authorities proves that no section of government machinery is left untouched by underhand dealings and human greed. If, during the last three decades, any government or its law-enforcing agencies had taken a strong stand in the corruption cases involving politicians and government officials, the situation may have been much better now.

The Bofors case from the 1980s died a slow death. The JMM (Jharkhand Mukti Morcha) cash-for-votes scam during the PV Narasimha Rao government also petered out without much progress. Even the Tehelka exposure during the BJP government did not make much headway. One of the prime accused was sentenced to a four-year jail term in 2012 but it was a case of too little and too late.

And looking at the way the Coalgate and Telecom scam investigations are moving, we may not be heading anywhere. The recent strong comments of the Supreme Court, equating the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) with a caged parrot, reinforces the fact that even nodal law-enforcement agencies are flexible to the diktats of the political masters.

One of the social signals that a beaten down and broken system gives to outsiders is that no one is going to stop further damage and it encourages fence-sitters to join the pilferage. At the same time, it strikes fear and apathy in well-meaning people and they, in-turn, start avoiding potential conflict.

The community is unable to assert control and there is an increase in tolerance for anti-social and wrong acts; whereas a clean and well-controlled environment sends a signal that there is continuous monitoring and no form of criminal act will be tolerated.

Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City (NYC), who is much respected because of his efficient handling of the post-9/11 relief efforts, was influenced by the broken window theory. NYC from 1970s onwards experienced a spurt in criminal activity and was considered one of the most dangerous cities to live.

In a number of neighbourhoods there were buildings with broken windows and this resulted in trash accumulation, graffiti on walls and roads. Prostitution, drug-dealing and petty crimes increased around these areas. Residents started withdrawing and did not intervene to maintain public order.

Sensing their fear, the anti-social elements got bolder and hence the crime rate increased. Giuliani became the mayor in 1994 and his administration attacked high crime rates by targetingthe broken window problem. They went aggressively after graffiti artists, loiterers, and people hopping subway turnstiles to avoid buying tickets and roadside pimps and prostitutes. Any illegal graffiti was repainted within 24 hours and all broken windows were fixed immediately.

The result was a steady decline in the crime rate. When Giuliani took office in 1994, 2800 murders were committed in NYC and by the time he left office in 2003 the number had reduced to 540.

As a new corruption scandal involving the nephew of a former railway minister unfolds, whether the broken window theory can be applied in the Indian context remains an open question. But a strong and decisive leadership with the aid of independent law-enforcement agencies should be able to improve the state of affairs.

If, during the last three decades, any government or its law-enforcing agencies had taken a strong stand in the corruption cases involving politicians and government officials, the situation may have been much better now

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