Pakistan: Bribes a way of life Persistence of graft taints celebration of nation's 50th birthday

September 07, 1997|By JEFF STEIN

One day after Pakistan rather sullenly marked its 50th anniversary last month, I was bumping along a stretch of broken concrete and dirt about 200 miles south of Islamabad, the capital. The Pakistani driver, who would eventually become my close friend after another 1,000 miles, turned to me with a question.

"You know," asked Ahmad, swerving around a crater that could have swallowed his little taxi, "how Pakistan was listed No. 2 in the world in corruption."

Yeah, I said, I'd heard something about it. Pakistan had been ranked second only to Nigeria in a 1996 "global corruption index" by an outfit called Transparency International.

"Actually," Ahmad went on, "we were No. 1. But we bribed the Nigerians to take first place."

I laughed aloud, even as my stomach lurched from potholes and a noxious cloud of road dust, diesel fumes, donkey dung, and eau de camel herd seeping through the windows. Outside, turbaned men were sawing up unplanted drain pipes and cannibalizing the idle road-building equipment of an absent construction crew. Officially, it was a workday in Pakistan, but the only people who seemed to be working were the thieves.

I've been to some countries where corruption is notorious - Vietnam, Thailand, Mexico and Jamaica, for example. My personal encounters with corruption merely meant slipping a $20 bill into my passport to ease customs "problems" or handing over a few bills to slimy policemen at a "roadblock." Otherwise, corruption was something I read about in the newspapers with everybody else. But in Pakistan I encountered a kind of everyday, pervasive corruption that was astounding in its audacity. It'll even make you sick. But at least you get to go home. The poor Pakistanis have to live with it all the time.

***

Like most foreigners who sample the local food, I came down with an intestinal "problem" by my third day in Islamabad, the grandiose capital thrown up on the dry north-central plain in the early 1960s. It this case, the food was a delicious sampling of lamb and beef kebabs at a local restaurant introduced to me by a pair of hospitable military attache's from the U.S. Embassy.

"It's pretty safe here," one of them told me. "But everybody gets sick at some point. It's usually not too bad." He then went on to tout the efficacy of certain antibiotics.

And it wasn't too bad, even when I came down with the inevitable diarrhea. What made my problem exponentially worse was, just as I'd cured myself with a diet of caution and Cokes, and mineral water, I found myself unknowingly drinking bad water again.

"That's no good," Ahmad said, snatching a bottle of "pure spring water" out of my hand. He showed me the old date on the tattered label. The water, he said, had most likely been drawn from the tap.

One of Pakistan's cottage industries, it turned out, is filling empty mineral water bottles from the tap - a bacteria-filled tap - and passing them along to unwary or uncaring retailers. Here was corruption's unseen hand.

That incident prompted Ahmad, a 40-year-old, college-educated father who's been driving a taxi for the past 11 years, to tell me a string of stories far worse.

A friend of his felt sick one day and went to a clinic in Rawalpindi, the old capital city adjacent to Islamabad. The doctor told him he was dehydrated and needed to be put on an intravenous hookup. The problem was, the doctor said, the clinic was out of saline solution. He advised Ahmad's friend to go to a pharmacy, buy a half dozen plastic bags on his own, and come back. The friend did as advised, returned to the hospital, and was put on the IV.

An hour later he was blind. As Ahmad explained, scavengers commonly collect empty solution bags from medical waste bins, fill them with tap water and sell them to neighborhood pharmacies - which are typically, dirty little shops stocked with out-of-date or bogus medicines, which are peddled to the ignorant or unwary, mostly the very poor.

"He was an accountant," Ahmed said, his face hardening with the tale. "Now he cannot work. He has to be led around by a nephew."

Corruption touches all facets of Ahmad's life. The month before we met, he got an electrical bill for more than 3,000 rupees (about $75), which was many times more than his usual bill. He went to the company and complained. Finally, the clerk offered him a solution: a small under-the-table payment each month, and the bill would go back to normal.

Of course, he paid. He had to. "The same thing happens with telephone bill, and with water bill," he said.

What would happen if he went to the police, I asked.

"Police?" he stammered. "Police? You can kill someone here, and all you do is go to the station, pay maybe a half million rupees, and you get off. Easy as that. The police are not interested in my water bill. All the police would want is more money to put the bill back down."

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