Can a Webcam Combat Corruption in India?

The Kerala government website now features a live feed of its offices

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India's rampant corruption--which ranges from petty bribes to high-profile scandals like the alleged rigging of telecoms licenses--has recently spurred activist Anna Hazare and Indian yogi Baba Ramdev to launch hunger strikes and the Indian government to develop an anti-graft law. But Oommen Chandy, the chief minister of India's southern Kerala state, has another solution for rooting out corruption: a webcam.

The New York Times explains today how Chandy has mounted cameras in his chamber and adjoining office so that the public can monitor a live, 24/7 video feed of the government at work on Kerala's website. It is just after 9 p.m. local time, and there's quite a bit of activity. Two groups are meeting around tables in the chamber, while office workers mill about cubicles (above). To our naked eye, we see no obvious corruption.

While The Times generally portrays the experiment as a legitimate anti-corruption effort, it also lists several issues with the measure that raise questions about whether the webcam truly promotes transparency or simply serves as a publicity stunt. First, the streamed proceedings don't include audio, which means that the smiling faces we see on the feed could very well be engaging in corrupt practices without us knowing it. According to The Times, Chandy isn't including sound because he wants "visitors and aides to speak freely when they meet him." The head of the Center for Internet and Society in Bangalor, who generally applauds Chandy's effort and wants to see webcams installed in the country's police stations, drivers' licenses offices, and welfare agencies, adds that people could still pay bribes outside Chandy's office. Transparency, moreover, "is tedious," as The Times puts it. Chandy is often out of the office, and when he's around you usually see him huddling with aides and other politicians. Another camera typically shows the minister's aides chatting, answering phones, or staring at computer screens. Here's a screenshot from today's feed showing a man who appears to be Chandy (at head of table on right) conducting a meeting in his chamber.

Chandy, it turns out, isn't the first politician to embrace the webcam strategy. Last month, The Wall Street Journal noted how Lee Jae-myung, the mayor of the Seoul suburb of Seongnam, set up a closed-circuit camera in his office to prevent visitors from bribing him and to compile evidence to protect himself from unfounded corruption allegations. “I point to the CCTV when I get the feeling that a visitor would bribe me or a visitor actually pokes out an envelope full of cash," Lee explained. The Journal reported that 12 provincial governments and district offices in South Korea had adopted similar measures.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.