India’s Guild of Thieves

A fictional universe is an unlikely source to gain insights into human behavior and public policy. If you read any of Terry Pratchett’s books however, you will soon agree that fantasy often mirrors and explains the world around us with astonishing clarity.

The biggest and most populous city in Pratchett’s fictional universe is Ankh Morpork (picture Mumbai minus BEST buses). One of the foundational elements of life in Ankh Morpork is the idea of guilds or associations. There are guilds for a wide array of professions — of merchants, of bankers, of lawyers. And also of thieves, of assassins, of bandits and seamstresses (aka sex workers).

The guilds give the city a surprising predictability. Take the thieves guild for instance. While the guild initially executed an agreed upon number of thefts every year, over the course of time, the guild evolved to run a protection racket. The idea is simple — you pay a fee and you do not get robbed. The guild has an official roll of licensed members. So, an unlicensed thief indulging in unauthorized theft rightly fears the might of the thieves guild far more than that of the cops.

The idea may appear ridiculous right up until you realize how firmly rooted in the real world it is. Consider the infamous Sicilian mafia(better known as the Corleone family). Consider the modern day avocado cartels. Consider, the hafta or “harassment bribes” that are rampant in India.

What is this hafta or fee that a hawker, a beggar or a sex-worker shell out week after week? This is the value they put on keeping their livelihood safe. This is a direct tax — paid not to the state but to the prevailing powers. This is money that funnels into the black economy.

In our very own homegrown brand of corruption, enforcement agencies work with syndicated networks of crooks — sometimes even running organized rackets themselves. In some instances, they have optimized the process of bribe collection by outsourcing it to middle men for a fee. It is well documented how spoils of these protection rackets roll-up all the way to the top of these agencies.

Successive governments have tried several measures on several fronts to address this — including anti-corruption measures within agencies, legalization drives for small businesses and hawkers, re-evaluation of no-vending zones. Some of our best minds have even come up with seemingly counter-intuitive ideas holding great promise (such as this suggestion to decriminalize the act of giving a bribe). These measures have seen limited success with new forms of rackets emerging over time.

As someone with little experience on public policy but sizable experience on reading Terry Pratchett — here is my suggestion. Racketeers appear to be doing a far better job of tracking and taxing this section of the informal economy, than governments ever have. So perhaps, it is now time to emulate the example of the great city of Ankh Morpork and legalize this informal network of racketeers instead. Now if only the promise of state protection sounded believable — to either the common citizen or the racketeers.