‘English is a very funny language’ said Amitabh Bachchan in one of his superhit films many years ago. Today, the high decibel furore around the ‘cuts’ in West Bengal reminds one of this line because it gives us an insight into the varied manifestations of the word in different situations over time. In West Bengal today, the phrase is ‘cut money’.

The phrase ‘cutting chai’ is commonly understood as having been born in Mumbai around the tea shops that probably introduced the term to mean a glass half-full of tea. The 2010 feature film Mumbai Cutting comprised seven short films offering city vignettes that hinged on the word ‘cutting’ which is identified with the special tea across stalls in the city.

Today, it has assumed a near-national identity, and if you go to a tea stall and do not add the prefix ‘cutting’ to your order of chai they will serve you a full glass, and charge you double.

There are of course varieties of this tea other than masala chai, and actor-author Jayant Kripalani who once anchored a television show called Roots, did an entire episode on the culture of chai in India in which cutting chai occupied prime space.

Many years ago, my mother-in-law used the word ‘cutting’ before we stepped out to watch a film. ‘They will show the cuttings before the main film,’ she would say, always late. She meant trailers and commercials for which cutting was the common term used in Calcutta at the time.

When my mother did her shopping at Bombay’s once-famous Gandhi Market, she was offered ‘cut pieces’ at half the price of a blouse piece bought from a full length of cloth. Always running the family on a shoestring budget, for her, it was like manna from heaven.

Today the word cut or cutting has assumed a very negative and derogatory meaning, especially after the masses in West Bengal began to cry themselves hoarse about how, for every ‘developmental’ project to help them, be it funded by grants from the centre or allotted by the state government, the various ‘agents’ (councillors, zilla parishad members, TMC volunteers and workers) demanded cutting - sometimes to the extent of 25% of the grant from the ‘beneficiary’.

Way back in Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome, the young bride proudly mentions the phrase ‘upar se chai pani ka paisa’ (money for refreshment from higher up) while describing her husband’s income, and lamenting the fact that he is going to be punished for this!

Cutting is another new word for bribe. It is there across the media, in Parliament and even in the pronouncements of the West Bengal chief minister who has requested the affected people to get in touch with her directly to reclaim the ‘cut money’ they gave to the agents of the powers that be. Is this not tantamount to her acknowledging the truth of the public protests?

Bribes, as we all know, are a national sport that everyone seems to accept as a given. Bribery is evidently not considered a crime, for if it were it wouldn’t be so rampant. So, I really fail to understand why all the political parties are making so much hue and cry over ‘cutting’, as though we have always had an honest government at centre and state?

On May 22, 2003 when the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister, the CBI arrested R.Perumalswamy, personal assistant to Gingee N.Ramachandran who was the union minister of state for finance, for allegedly accepting a bribe of Rs.4 lakh from a high official in the income tax department. The agency also arrested the income tax official who paid the bribe.

This raises questions about corruption as an integral part of work culture versus corruption as the symptom of a system in decay. The fact that the bribe-giver was also arrested tends to focus on the former aspect.

How could Anurag Vardhan, an income tax official from the IRES 1994 cadre, afford to pay Rs.4 lakh? Nine years in service and he is ready to cough up a high price to prevent or facilitate a transfer. ‘For him, it is an investment he knows he will make up several times over within a brief span – by accepting bribes of course,’ said a former chief of the Central Vigilance Commission in a television interview.

Vilfredo Pareto explained in 1896 how corruption has adverse effects on the economy of a state. He said that ‘spoilation’ deflects the productive energy of society’s most able members. The market for political favours crowds out the market for improved products and services. As a result, he wrote, ‘a society in which wealth is achieved only by work, industry and trade, will differ considerably from a society in which wealth is, to a considerable degree, the fruit of fraud and political intrigue.’

The misuse of public power for private profit is one definition of corruption. Different societies use different terms to describe it. In 1994, the misbehaviour of British parliamentarians was described as ‘sleaze’ - the word literally means thin or flimsy material that might leave people poorly covered. It came to describe any form of corrupt practice and gained international recognition.

Towards the end of September 2007, several districts in West Bengal such as Bankura, Birbhum and Burdwan witnessed the wrath of the masses against ration dealers, leading to violence and arson in many areas of these districts. It gradually spread to Midnapore (West) and Murshidabad, a very poor district in West Bengal.

The agitators squarely accused the ration dealers of manipulating the supplies of wheat and rice for the open market by selling them at a higher price. In other words, the dealers, appointed by the government to run the system, actually sabotaged it.

It was obvious that the public distribution system - the principal social security measure for a Marxist regime - had almost collapsed in these areas. Ironically, there was no food shortage in the ration shops for failed crops or drought or flood. And there was no report of irregular supplies from the food department.

The fault - or should we call it crime - lay at the door of the ration dealers, many of who were CPI-M functionaries presiding over the Panchayati Raj.

Back in the present, besides the ‘cuttings’ that the ‘agents’ of different capacities and guises have been accused of appropriating illegally, some facts have been brought forth. Moumita Godara Basu, District Magistrate of Birbhum, home soil of Rabindranath Tagore’s Santi Niketan, discovered the shocking fact that 1.4 crore rupees were withdrawn and shown as spent, by gram panchayats run by the Trinamul Congress in the district.

The auditing is fake, defies logic and is tantamount to a crime. It is linked to the 100-day job scheme involving 26 projects which have Not materialised. It makes a complete mockery of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

So where did the money go? The answer is simple: it was neatly siphoned off in its entirety, as a physical survey and examination have revealed that no work at all was carried out.

The declared target, supposed to have been based on demand for work, was to dig 43 ponds for projects planned by the horticulture department. The money withdrawn by gram panchayats and panchayat samitees was backed by fake utilisation certificates. (These figures are from the Statesman.)

The ‘cutting’ here is deducted right at the source, before the people concerned even know that the amount has arrived.

Within public service, including politicians, elected and appointed officials, the following activities are common:

. Ministers ‘selling’ their discretionary powers;

. Officials taking percentages on government contracts, which are often paid into foreign bank accounts;

. Officials ‘taking’ excessive ‘hospitality’ from government contractors and benefits in kind, such as scholarships for their children’s education at foreign universities;

. Officials contracting government business to themselves, either through front companies and ‘partners’ or even openly to themselves as ‘consultants’;

. Officials deliberately travelling abroad so that they can claim per diem allowances which they themselves set at extravagant levels;

. Political parties using the prospect of power, or of its continuation, to levy large rents on (in particular) international businesses in return for government contracts (which may be dressed up as a ‘donation’ to a designated ‘charity’ or ‘hospital’);

. Revenue officials practising extortion by threatening to surcharge tax payers or importers unless bribes are paid, in which case unjustifiably low assessments are made or goods are passed for importation without payment of any duty at all;

. Law enforcement officials extorting money for their own benefit by threatening to impose traffic penalties unless bribes are paid (which are frequently somewhat less than the penalty the offence would attract if it went to court);

. Providers of pubic services (e.g. drivers’ licences, market stall permits, passport control) insisting on payments for the services, or to speed the process up, or to prevent delays;

. Superiors in public service charging ‘rents’ from their subordinates, requiring them to raise set sums each week or month and to pass these on upwards.

Corruption is not unique to a country. Corruption in China, where many bureaucrats have ‘commercialized their administrative power’, is no different than it is in Europe, where political parties have taken huge kickbacks for public works projects (in Italy, the cost of road construction has reportedly dropped by over 20 percent since the ‘Clean Hands’ assault on corruption) or in the United States, where parties accept donations in the hundreds of millions brazenly made by corporations and protected in the guise of ‘free speech’.

Is there a cost to all of this?

On a recent visit to Bolpur, when I asked a rickshaw puller enlisted in the employment guarantee programme if he had received any money, he said “Not one naya paisa. And as for the work I have to report every night at the panchayat head’s residence to clean his house, or stay guard outside the entrance, or do night duty for him and his family. When I ask for money, he says it will take time.”

So after pulling his cycle rickshaw every day, which is very seasonal work, he has to keep awake at nights to do night duty, without pay.