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India's Sacred Cows Become Tool of Corruption

Like many developing nations, India contends with endemic corruption. Even the management of one of India's most enduring symbols - the cow, which Hindus consider sacred - is rife with corruption and fraud. The country is trying to tackle the problem with small steps, such as putting microchips in cows to make tracking them easier, and enabling Indians to obtain information on how government money is being spent.

In a government-run shelter in India's capital, New Delhi, cows are undergoing what may seem a strange procedure, they are being forced to swallow microchips which remain permanently in one of their four stomachs.

With the use of special scanners, municipal workers can read the numbered microchips, identifying the cows and their owners.

In India, the cow is sacred as part of the Hindu religion's story of creation. But they are also a source of currency or collateral in the society, and being able to count and track them is vital to some businesses.

But these protected animals tend to be allowed to roam freely through Indian cities, often causing public nuisance such as traffic jams and eating garbage, which taints the milk that ends up going to market.

Municipal authorities routinely round up the stray cows but have not been able to identify owners, who would be fined for breaking the law by letting them wander off approved grazing lands.

The microchip system is changing that.

Ashish Anand came up with the microchip idea, and his company, Everest Enterprises, is now under contract by the New Delhi government to provide tracking for cows.

"They used to put an ear-tag for identification and control, but these farms and other vested interests just used to tear the tag off of the animal. It's like a vehicle without a number plate," he said.

One benefit to controlling cattle is cleaner milk. United Nations health experts say about 50 percent of India's milk supply is sold informally, without any processing or pasteurization. If a cow has been eating garbage, this can lead to health problems for consumers, and a subsequent drain on health services.

But cow problems go even further than that.

Farmers often use cows and other livestock as collateral for government loans and subsidies. By borrowing cows from each other, the farmers can fool officials about the number of cattle they own, and obtain larger loans, which get wasted. Anand says that type of fraud has prevented India's agricultural sector from developing.

"The amount the government has spent giving loans to farmers across the countryside to purchase animals, if those really existed, the milk production would have been doubled or tripled by now," he noted. "Milk production has remained more or less stagnant, while the number of animals keeps increasing on paper. So that, in itself, shows the total ramifications and the total volume of fraud that you're talking about. It should not be less than half a billion of dollars every year."

Manoj Dagar, 15, is one of many Indians who feels the effects of that type of fraud. His family owns 21 dairy cows and buffalo on a farm in the village of Meerut, outside the capital. The family is struggling to send Manoj and his brother to college.

Massive fraud has now made loans less available to farmers like the Dagars who want to expand their business.

Dagar says if the government passes new loan schemes, if they provide us with more property and land, we could have farms like the ones in America, with 100 cows and machines to milk them. He says that if the government were to help his family, they could really increase their profit.

A related problem, analysts say, is that government funds intended for agricultural development sometimes end up in the pockets of corrupt officials. The World Bank estimates that 60 percent of India's population, of about one billion people, works in agriculture, while the sector only represents about 20 percent of India's gross domestic product.

So fraud on cows and development aid is seriously hampering growth. But it goes far beyond agriculture and farmers.

The Indian office of the corruption watchdog, Transparency International, says Indians paid an estimated $4.8 billion in petty bribes in 2005, simply to receive standard services, such as utilities, health care and police protection.

About 62 percent of Indians surveyed admit to paying bribes, and 75 percent say the problem is getting worse.

That is why India recently launched a national anti-corruption campaign. A consortium of dozens of organizations is using the campaign to publicize what many see as groundbreaking legislation: India's Right to Information Act.

The legislation, signed last year, aims to counter endemic corruption. Now, anybody can petition the independent Information Commission to investigate how public funds are being spent, or why a service has not been rendered. The new law requires that information be supplied within 30 days.

Even with the new legislation, one of the challenges will be to change the mentality that paying petty bribes is the easiest way to get things done.

Bhaskara Rao is with the Centre for Media Studies, an independent organization in New Delhi that promotes good governance.

"Our slogan is, instead of [paying a] bribe, the Right to Information may work better and faster," he said. "Even if you pay a bribe, there's no guarantee that you'll get it within 24 hours. We need to see how much that potential will be unleashed in the coming months."

It may be some time before India fully turns the corner and makes corruption the exception rather than the rule.

But with innovations such as the microchipping of cows and the new laws on making public where government funds actually go, progress may be on the way.