These are nervous days for corrupt Indian officials: cops and prosecutors are working overtime on the largest accretion of high-smelling scandals India has ever known. Public disgust is written on the nation's walls--and some other unexpected spots. At a recent gathering in New Delhi, more than 100 women competed to draw the most eye-catching designs on their palms in mehndi, or henna, a traditional art. The winning design was an intricate floral, but second and third places went to contestants who used skin as a medium of protest against bribes and rake-offs. Most of the entrants were similarly inspired, drawing officials sitting on sacks of money and caricatures of politicians accused of corruption, including former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. The most fervent allowed the designs to go off the palm and all the way up to their elbows.

Which is not surprising in a land chin deep in official venality. "We're talking about a pervasive phenomenon," says Samuel Paul, director of the Public Affairs Center, a polling organization in Bangalore that releases regular "report cards" on government performance. Politicians catch most of the heat because they accumulate the plumpest moneybags. In just one of the scandals dominating the newspapers, investigators raided the residence of former Telecommunications Minister Sukh Ram in August and found piles of bank notes. In a single raid in New Delhi, they toted away $700,000, and more was discovered in another house belonging to the former minister in his hometown.

But on the whole, more cash is accumulated by India's vast army of salaried government employees, numbering nearly 20 million, who siphon away development project funds, hold up approvals for bribes, or demand payment for such privileges as getting a telephone or even, in some cities, sleeping on the pavement. They are rarely caught and never have to worry about being booted out in an election.

But now some heat is being fanned their way. A handful of high-profile civil servants have published books that expose rampant official wrongdoing, especially at the senior levels. "The system has become rotten," says K.J. Alphons, whose book Making a Difference details how he has made an ongoing career of fighting corruption in various jobs. "Public money is being stolen, but even honest, hardworking officers just keep quiet. This is the curse of the country." And the shrill sound of whistle blowing is coming from other levels too. In Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, members of the Indian Administrative Service are trying to "out" their dirtiest colleagues: these bureaucrats plan to cast secret ballots to name the state's most underhanded officials. The three who garner the greatest number of votes will be exposed, and an independent panel will probe allegations against each one who earns more than 100 votes. Officials in the neighboring state of Bihar are planning a similar exercise. "It is time we called a spade a spade," says Uttar Pradesh's Home Secretary, G. Patnaik.

Efforts to reverse the situation will require not spades but bulldozers. After independence in 1947, Indians were confident that homegrown bureaucrats would be more dedicated and honorable than the retreating British, and a job in either the ias or the Foreign Service was a mark of towering prestige. But low salaries, poor discipline and the power to make or break business deals--which had to be officially approved--turned many bureaucrats to careers of soliciting bribes. Others remained personally honest but kept mum about the misdeeds around them. Election commissioner T.N. Seshan, in a book called The Degeneration of India, identifies the Emergency Rule of the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the mid-1970s as the turning point. Civil servants carried out illegal orders, helped Mrs. Gandhi jail her opponents and, Seshan writes, "almost gleefully" helped gag the press. "The bureaucracy, for the most part, utterly caved in," he concludes. "Over the years, the practice of corruption has become so endemic that it has acquired a veneer of almost complete legality." Fellow author J.N. Dixit, until recently the top bureaucrat in India's Foreign Ministry, complains in a new book that India's best and brightest do not apply for the Foreign Service anymore because the pickings are better in domestic posts. Madhav Godbole, secretary of New Delhi's Ministry of Home Affairs in the early 1990s, concludes that there is too much political interference in the civil service. "This is now a mutually reinforcing system with each aiding and abetting the other in getting the maximum out of the spoils system," he writes in Unfinished Innings.

But a handful of honchos looking back in anger and disgust will not solve many problems, and few other initiatives are trickling down from the top. Probably the only real hope is for local action. Earlier this year in Rajasthan state, villagers suspecting that government funds for development work such as water supply or health care were being pocketed, demanded to see records proving the money had been disbursed. The bureaucracy resisted but finally gave in when the villagers continued public protests. If India is getting fed up with corruption, the people will have to send the message however they can--even if it is painted on the hands of their young women.

--Reported by Meenakshi Ganguly/New Delhi