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Corruption-weary Indians support activist's fast

Pradeep Bhatia cannot remember how many times he has paid bribes to government officials. From having an electricity meter installed to getting past traffic police officers on a busy day, he knows that in India, everything has a price.

The 50-year-old mechanic was so fed up with graft that he took a two-hour bus ride to New Delhi on Thursday to join hundreds of others outside a jail where an anti-corruption crusader was on a hunger strike to pressure the government to strengthen reform legislation.

Anna Hazare's protest has struck a chord with a wide swath of the middle class in a nation where corruption has become so entrenched that there is an informal price list for the bribes required for most routine government services.

Getting land registered can cost 5,000 extra rupees ($110). A passport costs 500 rupees ($11). A driving license for someone who has never even taken driving lessons can be bought for an extra 1,500 rupees ($33). Traffic police will let you off for 50 to 100 rupees ($1 to $2). Even nursery school administrators demand under-the-table payments to secure a place for incoming children.

"From the servant to the prime minister, every government official is now corrupt," Bhatia said as he handed out plastic containers of drinking water to hundreds of flag-waving supporters outside the prison where the 73-year-old Hazare has been since Tuesday.

Police initially gave Hazare permission to hold a public hunger strike for only three days. He rejected the conditions, was briefly arrested and then refused to leave the jail when he was released unless he could hold his protest.

He was eventually granted permission for a 15-day public demonstration to begin Friday.

In a country of 1.2 billion where hundreds of millions of people live on less than $2 a day, the support for Hazare so far appears to be led entirely by urban, middle-class Indians.

Outside the prison there were school teachers and students, accountants and office workers, bus drivers and mechanics. They sang patriotic songs and clanged steel plates and spoons, waved the Indian flag, and wore caps emblazoned with the words "I am Anna."

The poor, who are often the hardest-hit by the dishonest bureaucracy, were nowhere to be found.

"Poor people have been so ignored by government that they're not educated. They have no idea what their rights are," said Parikshit Verma, a young office worker who took the day off to bring his wife and 18-month-old son to the jail to show support for Hazare.

"He is doing so much for this country. He is trying to clean up the political system for us. The least we can do for our country is come and show our support for one day," he said.

Manju Bhatia, a 50-year-old teacher in a government school, said she could no longer tolerate the pervasive dishonesty.

"Corruption is now in everything you touch in this country. It's gone to the roots. Every honest person lives in fear because there's no room for us," she said.

Hazare's protest is the newest crisis to hit a beleaguered government that is battling a slew of corruption allegations — from the murky sale of cellphone licenses to the hosting of last year's Commonwealth Games.

The scandals have embarrassed the government and paralyzed Parliament, with lawmakers trading insults and accusations instead of addressing widespread malnutrition and a desperate need for land reform.

As the government has struggled to come up with a suitable strategy to win people's trust, Hazare's protest has prompted tens of thousands of middle-class people to rally in towns and cities across the country.

Everyone has a story of the times they felt they had no choice but to pay a bribe.

Some are open about their experiences with public corruption, like Bhatia the mechanic who said he had to pay 2,500 rupees ($55) so the electricity department in his hometown of Karnal in north India would install a meter in his new house. And Prahalad Shastri, a young activist from Latur in western India, who paid hundreds of rupees to get a passport.

"Corruption is everywhere," said Rajiv Kasewa, an accountant at the protest. "I'm doing this because I have a desire to leave a better India when I leave."