© Peter Mollinga

Institutionalized Corruption in Irrigation

Professor Mollinga discusses experiences from Indonesia and India

A recent publication by Professor Peter Mollinga and Dr. Diana Suhardiman titled: “Institutionalized corruption in Indonesian irrigation: An analysis of the upeti system” highlights corruption in the Indonesian irrigation sector. The paper shows that a complex, institutionalized system, referred to as the upeti practice, results in resources being funneled upwards in the organization hierarchy in exchange for job and social security.

The research study also became the source of this brief, a jointly published paper by WIN and IWMI. Prof. Mollinga lectures at SOAS University of London. His research has mainly focused on water governance and water politics as well as agrarian change and technology, and inter- and trans-disciplinary approaches to natural resources management. He has many years of work experience in the water sector, and has contributed many publications on agricultural water, with a strong focus on South and Central Asia.

We interviewed Prof. Mollinga about his work on water, corruption and water governance.


Over the past years, you have published numerous papers related to water management and recently you co-authored a study on institutionalized corruption in the water sector in Indonesia and recently co-authored a brief on the topic for WIN. Why do you think it is important to share such results?

“It is important to show that corruption in irrigation is systemic. In the 1980s, Professor Robert Wade, a political economy and development scholar, researched the administrative and political system of corruption in India, showing that it is not about morality but that corruption is part of the institutional set-up. The paper by Wade is well-known, yet very few people have followed up on his analysis since then. Whilst informally, corruption is acknowledged, the phenomenon has not been widely explored academically. It was therefore important for us to test Prof. Wade’s theory. His analysis largely stands. In our paper we checked if a similar theory could be applied to the Indonesian context.”


Is institutionalized corruption becoming an increasing trend? And how do you suggest we begin to tackle the problem?

“I’m not sure institutionalized corruption in the water sector is increasing. It is relatively stable, at least from what I can see from working in India in the past 25 years. Institutionalized corruption also supports a particular part of the electoral political system in Indonesia, like in India. It is a stable system and everyone basically knows how it works. What has changed or evolved slightly might be the amount of money and the institutions most affected. In Indonesia, starting in the 1960s, a lot of development aid has also come in, which helps to ‘fuel’ the system.

In the paper we say that approaches to combat corruption are generally top down: for instance they seek to achieve stricter implementation of rules and/or get the prices right in terms of government employees’ salaries. There are different approaches from the top that have not always been particularly consistent. There is more scope to work with local actors, farmers and contractors to do things slightly differently. We should try to look for more openings at lower levels. Without a local constituency, it is difficult to change the system. There is a need to mobilize local actors.”


Have you seen successful cases of the organizational culture changing which have led to reduced institutional corruption in irrigation or the water sector generally?

“In India, for instance, there have been localized instances of repairs of canals. Farmers are very interested to have more control by executing maintenance themselves or doing more. These actions push for different accountability with contractors and development agencies. There have also been efforts to make this into policy, but this has not been successful. If you would give farmers at local levels a chance, it might change, but currently there are few examples. Partly because of bureaucracy, but also because of divided interests in the farming community. Politically, it is also a difficult thing to get going.

In a different context, the present government of Delhi has a party which came to power on an anti-corruption agenda. There was a social movement against corruption. So we do see that when there is political space to raise the issue, people step in. Most people would like to get rid of corruption because of its systemic character. It is a topic that you can read about in the newspaper every day. There is clearly a lot of dissatisfaction. In the Indonesian case however, it is very difficult to stand up against corruption in the water sector if you want to keep your job and income.”


In the Water Integrity Global Outlook 2016, published by WIN, one key finding was that there is a lack of evidence and data on corruption in the water sector. How can we ensure more data is generated on corruption in the water sector?

“I have never really published about corruption in the water sector, except in passing. The reason is simple: it is a very sensitive topic. It is even more difficult for local academics (especially Indian academics), to take a clear position when one is part of a government-sponsored university. It means you are taking a career risk. It’s not that academics don’t write about the topic, they just rarely use detailed empirical data. This is why we have little concrete evidence. There are people who model corruption and provide more general accounts of corruption in the water sector. However, providing case studies with evidence has not happened much, except in the paper by Wade and our recently published paper.

What do we achieve with such research? First of all we think about the policy implications. Generally, the donor agencies are not that interested and in fact they may play a role in reproducing systems. At the same time structural changes are needed on the ground to tackle the issues, which is not an easy thing. The model of ‘Participatory Budgeting’ and focusing on a local agenda for change could perhaps inspire new ways forward. More academic work may help make these options better known.”


You have done extensive work in Asia on water governance. How receptive are institutions in Asia to promoting better water governance and integrity practices?

The situation in India and Indonesia is quite different. In India the debate on water governance is largely a domestic debate that goes on at the level of the states that compose India. In Indonesia, there is a high donor presence in policymaking and national water governance; the environment is different.

In our research and brief we discuss irrigation reform. In India, there have been efforts at such reform, but certain political dynamics have always limited these processes. When looking at irrigation reform in India, it is remarkable how less ambitious these are in comparison to reforms in the electricity sector. It is difficult to answer why this is the case. Certainly in the agricultural water sector there is very little change. In the urban water sector there have been more efforts.

If you look at public private partnerships (PPPs) as a reform measure, it’s also interesting to see that many efforts have run into the sand. In the state of Gujarat for instance, if I am not mistaken, only one city has a PPP for water supply. And in other places where they have been attempted they tend to develop into something else than originally conceived.

Overall receptiveness to integrity in the water bureaucracy is very low, I would say. And of course, that is partly because, individual people benefit from corruption. And, – as analysed by Wade, a large part of the money stemming from institutionalized corruption is used for electoral political campaigns. However, given these dynamics, and as we point out in our brief,  the moral positioning on the topic of corruption and the measures that tackle it from that perspective are not the most fruitful way forward.”

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