Atanu Dey On India's Development

The Habit of Being Honest

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A few days ago, a Pakistani singer by the name of Rahat was caught smuggling around $130,000 out of India. It does not matter what the prescribed penalties are for such an act but the interior minister of Pakistan called up the Home Minister of India, P. Chidambaram and thanked him for facilitating Rahat’s release. Thanks to Mr Chidambaram’s intervention in the matter, it all ended well for the singer. But not for the country.

I could not help but marvel at that incident, and it brought to mind another incident. That one also involved the breaking of a law by an expatriate and a call from an official of the home country. That matter ended differently. In the difference in the outcomes of those two apparently trivial incidents lies the explanation for the enormous differences in the fortunes of two states.

It was 1994. An American expatriate in Singapore was convicted of vandalizing property. Not a big deal in the overall scheme of things — an 18-year old doing what teenagers sometimes do — but the law in Singapore was clear on the matter of vandalism. The sentence was four months in jail, S$3,500 in fines, and caning — six lashes on bare buttocks.

The US president, Bill Clinton, appealed for clemency. Two dozen senators wrote to the Singaporean government for mercy. But the sentence was carried out. Michael Fay was convicted of a crime and he paid for it, which was the law of the land. (The lashes were reduced to four from six — out of respect for the US President’s appeal.)

Singapore and India are entirely different states. Though both were neck and neck economically around 50 years ago, today Singapore is a prosperous state while India is pathetically poor. In global rankings of corruption in nations, India ranks as one of the most corrupt and Singapore one of the least corrupt.

In Singapore, the powerful and the powerless are all equal before the law. In India, depending on who you know, you can get away with murder — literally. In Singapore, they have rule by law, and in India we have rule by people.

Yesterday Indians had the most impressive demonstration of how deep-rooted corruption is unavoidable in a system where things are done according to the whims and fancies of those in power, and not according to rules. The prime minister of India deflected all blame away from himself for the many multi-billion dollar corruptions he has enabled by saying that he is helpless.

What that says is that in a tussle between the law of the land and powerful but corrupt people, the corrupt win and the law is powerless.

What Mr Singh demonstrated is not just his personal moral turpitude but also that the nation is morally bankrupt. The people know that the corrupt rule the roost and yet they tolerate it. Honest people with any sense of right and wrong would be outraged enough to force the legal system to punish the guilty. But Indians don’t care and the corrupt flourish while the country sinks deeper into unimaginable poverty.

Alfred North Whitehead once observed that “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them.” If you ponder that for a bit, you see that to perform important operations without thinking about them requires learning, the acquisition of habits through repeated performance of that operation till it becomes second nature.

Honesty is a habit. Dishonesty is also a habit. There is a social compact which says that I recognize that you are dishonest, and you are at the top of the heap for now. It says that I aspire to someday get to your position and when I do, I will so exactly what you do and make my personal fortune. So I have to allow you to do what I hope to do myself when I get there. I cannot begrudge you what you do since I hope to there someday myself and do what you do.

We Indians tolerate corruption because we aspire to make our fortunes the same way if we ever get that chance.

There’s a cost, however. When you look into the eyes of the next malnourished child begging at a traffic light, you should know that it is your acceptance of gross corruption which enables that injustice. You make this state of affairs possible that the economy is so compromised that it accepts the starvation of children as a matter of fact.

We are all collectively responsible. We have not developed that habit of rule of law that makes a caring society possible. We have made it possible for the corrupt to flourish because we are ourselves corrupt.

What is it that distinguishes a person who is an alcoholic but knows that he is one, from another who is as much an alcoholic but steadfastly refuses to acknowledge his problem? The former has the possibility of seeking redemption but the latter will continue to sink further into oblivion. Who knows how long it will take for us to admit that we as a collective are dishonest and as a consequence of our collective dishonesty we are poor.

It is all karma, neh?

Related Posts:

The Ownership Society. October 2005.

The Tangled Web — Part 3. June 2007.

  • Sridhar

    <<<>>>

    Very well said, Sir. Hope people realize this is exactly why we should hate corruption. It is not about a raja filling-up his pockets and his breaking of laws.

  • http://honestlynagpur.blogspot.com/ kautilya

    i think we are just plain lazy to be honest.

  • Amit S

    While I agree that Indians are more dishonest and are okay with breaking laws in general than compared to people of developed countries (e.g. USA, Singapore, Japan etc.), but I do not believe that we started out this way. When the system is such that it is hard to get conviction out of the powerful who break the law, people soon feel helpless and decide to “join the party” (pun intended on India’s GOP) instead. This then permeates into the culture.

    I believe that all is, however, not lost. For two reasons. First, I think that any pyramidal scheme, which is what a culture corruption is, leaves enough frustrated people at the bottom, who have largely been taken advantage of, which explains the level of poverty in India. These people who have not been left behind can be rallied with the right rally cry, just as they have been rallying behind the wrong cries. Second, I think that even among those who are not at the bottom of the pyramid, and thus can actually do things beyond their immediate survival, there are enough honest people who are outraged by the current scenario and can bring about a change. These people are currently not connected and organized enough. I think that with the technology, that critical mass can be reached soon. We need to keep working at creating that critical mass, even if it does not happen in our desired time frame.

  • Amit S

    Errata:

    While I agree that Indians are more dishonest and are okay with breaking laws in general than compared to people of developed countries (e.g. USA, Singapore, Japan etc.), but I do not believe that we started out this way. When the system is such that it is hard to get conviction out of the powerful who break the law, people soon feel helpless and decide to “join the party” (pun intended on India’s GOP) instead. This then permeates into the culture.

    I believe that all is, however, not lost. For two reasons. First, I think that any pyramidal scheme, which is what a culture of corruption is, leaves enough frustrated people at the bottom, who have largely been taken advantage of, which explains the level of poverty in India. These people who have been left behind can be rallied with the right purpose, just as they have been rallying behind the wrong cries. Second, I think that even among those who are not at the bottom of the pyramid, and thus can actually do things beyond their immediate survival, there are enough honest people who are outraged by the current scenario and can bring about a change. These people are currently not connected and organized enough. I think that with the technology, that critical mass can be reached soon. We need to keep working at creating that critical mass, even if it does not happen in our desired time frame.

  • Ungrateful Alive

    Sorry to see Atanu gradually go ballistic pan-India.

    “We Indians tolerate corruption because we aspire to make our fortunes the same way if we ever get that chance.” — No sir. Indians tolerate corruption because they have real jobs and overburdened lives, as teachers, office workers, technicians, managers, parents … even if they all felt the righful rage you demand of them, they would just destroy their lives and those of their dear ones, and achieve nothing.

    “When you look into the eyes of the next malnourished child begging at a traffic light, you should know that it is your acceptance of gross corruption which enables that injustice.” — I see. The enormously stupid choice made by the child’s teenage parents to procreate is secondary to the acceptance of gross corruption of the teacher, office worker, technician or manager. Great analysis there.

    Atanu’s writing is getting into “the beatings will continue until the morale improves” category. Keep blaming the patient, will ya. You will still find hundreds of millions working hard, saving, paying taxes, obeying the law, and bringing up one or two kids to be reasonable citizens in a hellhole of a country. What are you achieving by alienating that category?

  • RC

    “I see. The enormously stupid choice made by the child’s teenage parents to procreate is secondary to the acceptance of gross corruption of the teacher, office worker, technician or manager.”

    The bigotry just overflows in the above statement. It is assumed that the parents are teenage. It is assumed that the choice of procreation was “stupid”. Its disgusting.
    People are prosperous is orderly societies. People are prosperous in society where efficient use of capital is made. Corruption introduces inefficiencies and results in reduced respect for law.
    BTW, not only government employees can be corrupt. Anyone can be corrupt.

    The suggestion that the poor are responsible for their poverty because they chose to have a baby ridiculous and deeply offensive.

  • RC

    Oops, I meant :
    The suggestion that the poor are responsible for their poverty because they chose to have a baby is ridiculous and deeply offensive.

    In fact extreme poverty in India points to the failure of the elite because we the elite are unable to come up with ways to utilize this human capital for productive use. (No washing dishing is not a real productive use)

  • Ungrateful Alive

    “The suggestion that the poor are responsible for their poverty because they chose to have a baby is ridiculous and deeply offensive.”

    Go ahead and get deeply offended. It won’t help India any more than my perceived bigotry. Anyone who cannot see the fundamental culpability of parents who cannot provision for their children needs remedial logical thinking lessons.

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  • http://sachinsstream.blogspot.com Sachin

    Well said, Atanu. Specially liked the second half of the post.

    Since as far back as I can remember I have always heard that we are corrupt because we don’t care and it never made sense why people who are getting hurt by something wouldn’t care about it.
    So, your point that we are corrupt because most of us individually aspire to be corrupt makes a lot of sense.

  • ag

    Good post!

  • chaitanya

    Hi Atanu, enough of repeating the problem. we see hundreds of such articles on the net. I would like to hear a) your practical solution b) if and how you are working towards that solution. This is not a rhetorical/sarcastic question. It’s a honest straight forward question. what’s the way forward according to you ?

    thanks

  • Sivaprasath

    Very well said. It’s equally important to punish people when it’s informed. With the kind of power our PM has and for the kind of magnitude the scams are, We as people have done nothing wrong in expecting the government to take the corrective action at the right time.

    Appreciate your point!!

    Thanks.

  • MJ

    1) “No sir. Indians tolerate corruption because they have real jobs and overburdened lives, as teachers, office workers, technicians, managers, parents … even if they all felt the righful rage you demand of them, they would just destroy their lives and those of their dear ones, and achieve nothing.”

    Ungrateful Alive, two things:
    - Someone once said, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”. Rage is not sufficient and the lives of their dear ones is destroyed anyway by not doing anything. The onus is on the common men and women who may be overburdened to demand change and accountability. It has always been that way.
    - In Egypt the other day, a well educated Egyptian man was fearing for his life but said that even though he was married and had children, he thought that enough was enough and he could not stay silent. Its called having a spine.

    Your so called real employees and oh so overburdened people either are so dumb as to not understand the cause of their burden or lack a spine and any sense of social responsibility.

    2) “The enormously stupid choice made by the child’s teenage parents to procreate is secondary to the acceptance of gross corruption of the teacher, office worker, technician or manager. Great analysis there.”

    Indeed, if the teacher, etc have to submit to corruption to raise their kids silently, then that is an equally stupid choice of procreating, is it not?

    3) “Keep blaming the patient, will ya. You will still find hundreds of millions working hard, saving, paying taxes, obeying the law, and bringing up one or two kids to be reasonable citizens in a hellhole of a country. What are you achieving by alienating that category?”

    As I said, the onus is on that category to do something. If someone can bash some sense into them, so be it. By the way, on an optimistic note, I have my hopes pinned on the younger citizens. They seem to be not be as gutless as you and are willing to step up to the plate. Also, for the first time, they are exposed to other cultures and people due to globalization and are understanding the problems better. That’s my silver lining for the day.

  • Jayant N

    Good post Atanu.

  • Rk

    Good post. Philosophically, in the large scheme of things I agree with your bit that people are responsible. But, practically, let’s say people agree that they would like to be honest, what can be done in situations like these ?

    Are you saying don’t vote Dr Singh ? Is the 2nd best alternative the honest person ? Let’s say, miraculously we found an honest leader, what is the chance that entire system will follow ? I can hear a name here and a name there, (Nitish, Narendra), but how long can it sustain ?

    What is practically possible ??!!! (Other than surrendering to Karma)

  • Indian

    Everyone knows it we dont catch the small fish. Oh wait, we dont the big fish either! I am just generally pissed at the state of affairs and that cant do anything about it. I had a thought maybe we need a website one for mlas and one for mps. It should display the entire resume for each one of them – education(none),charged(a few hundred FIRs), convictions(none),achievements (none) among others. But then its the case who would tie the bell around cat’s neck in getting this info.

  • Sudheer

    Atanu, a Singaporean here. While it is easy comparing India’s legal system with Singapore’s, this is invalid beyond a very superficial level. Singapore started off with literally nothing. When the British used the port for shipping and trade, the economy flourished. After the British left and Singapore left Malaysia in 1965, we were left with a tiny island with no natural resources, no food, and no water, absolutely nothing.

    Building the system from scratch, improving living conditions and boosting the economy was not just a “nice to have”, but coupled with the racial divisions among Chinese, Indians and Malays, it was a battle just to keep the country together. We came perilously close to not existing.

    The only way to stabilise this country, jumpstart the economy and bring in money was to create and sustain an absolutely transparent and clean government, with low tariffs, low taxes, low entry barriers, good support for businesses and industry, great infrastructure, and highly skilled workers. The system has been very dynamic, and has seen many improvements over the decades.

    Let us understand that even a hint of corruption, nepotism, a poor legal framework, poor infrastructure, red tape and bureaucracy would have killed this country, since Malaysia and Indonesia offered much cheaper options and lower cost labour. We had to differentiate ourselves by being a first world country in the middle of a third world neighbourhood. Again, let us understand, whether Singapore is a clean, efficient system or not would affect the very survival of the country.

    India’s case is the opposite. We came into freedom in 1947 with a bang. We were endowed with tremendous natural resources, wealth, great leaders, extremely intelligent scientists and scholars, a great culture with a long history, literally a shining jewel with nothing lacking. Britain had created some of the best rail networks, educational institutes, public buildings and infrastructure and ports before they left.

    We took it for granted, didn’t realise what was holding this country together, exploited anything we could for personal gain, because “there’s tons of wealth around”, why bother working hard to create and sustain wealth?

    This degenerated into the disastrous mess we have today, where politicians never have the peoples’ interest at heart as it would be detrimental to their wealth. Pitting people against each other seems to work, caste and language based politics surely works, and ministers scamming the exchequer trying to outdo each other surely positively works, for the politicians.

  • breennoopia

    Hi Atanu!

    I appreciate your candor.

    However I cannot agree with the following line:

    We Indians tolerate corruption because we aspire to make our fortunes the same way if we ever get that chance.

    Ordinary qualified (i.e. with a degree from a recognized educational institute of India) middle class Indians tolerate corruption due to:

    1. Preoccupation with short term personal objectives which are usually oriented towards survival of the person and her or his family.

    2. Lack of low hanging practical alternatives.

    3. Absence of suitable and approachable leaders.

    4. Fear of lack of support from the society (to which we all belong) and unknown consequences.

    5. Preference for  personal peace, patience and tolerance – all of which may be inherited or acquired from our surroundings.

    Every time I read your blog, the following question often comes to my mind:

    Who will bell the cat?

  • Praveen

    we need new young educated leaders to clean up this mess which is affecting public services.
    We need more stringent law to infuse this culture into the society and brains of Indians. this will take time of course.

    We need this solution.

  • TiredProf

    There’s no dearth of analysis of the Atanu-and-admirers variety in the community that sits in AC rooms and clacks keyboards. But if you want to really get into reform politics, I would seriously advise you to first practise beheading and skinning goats or at least chicken—if you don’t have the stomach to do that, preferably don’t waste electrons on blogs either. The lumpen lot that runs the country won’t be shamed out of their seats by the polite remonstrations that the impotent Indian middle class can make inside their houses and on their blogs. Bloodshed is required.

    • http://www.deeshaa.org Atanu Dey

      TiredProf,

      Never confuse patience with weakness. And be very afraid of the anger of a people slow to anger.

  • Oldtimer

    True, many Indians don’t fight corruption because they are too busy with the stuff going on in their lives.

    But many Indians also don’t fight corruption because they’ve so internalized it that they consider it the norm, and — as the author rightly said — will turn corrupt themselves at the first opportunity. Do they know that it is immoral/unethical to be corrupt? The educated lot among these people do know it. The illiterate poor who sell their vote for a price perhaps do not know the ethics angle of corruption, but even they know that the buyer wouldn’t be offering a price if he doesn’t materially benefit from the outcome. All in all, many Indians view public office as an opportunity to make money.

  • Oldtimer

    TiredProf,

    >>There’s no dearth of analysis of the Atanu-and-admirers variety in the community that sits in AC rooms

    When I was a kid, I used to see this barb often in letters-to-the-editor column of newspapers. Are you sure it still retains its punch, given that post economic reforms the airconditioner is not such a rare sight in Indian households? If yes, sad commentary on state of affairs that 30 years later A/C is still our benchmark for acceptable living conditions, considering we are a hot, sweaty country anyway. Atanu’s fav country, Singapore, shines again in comparison.

  • TiredProf

    “Post economic reforms the airconditioner is not such a rare sight in Indian households?”

    And yet (Atanu says and I have verified that) India has far more desperately poor people today than India had people in 1940.

    So it all depends on how you benchmark the state of the nation: mean, median or Jimmy Choo.

  • TiredProf

    “Never confuse patience with weakness. And be very afraid of the anger of a people slow to anger.”

    Waiting, Atanu, waiting…

    But somehow I suspect that when India gets angry, it will be for all the wrong reasons.

  • larissa

    But somehow I suspect that when India gets angry, it will be for all the wrong reasons.

    Come on, with the Sahib complex which is never erased, they will have Rahul Gandhi eventually rule over them and don’t be surprised if his hispanic girlfriend is runner up for ruler eventually. Apparently, Indians don’t seem to like their own kind to rule over them, what else explains them ruled by a lady who can hardly speak the language, who is of another religion, and who has no professtional qualifications or even a college degree? This can happen only with complexed Indians and nowhere else in the world because their own countrymen with such credentials would simply be unacceptable to them…

  • Lalit

    To a certain extent agreed that, We Indians tolerate corruption because we aspire to make our fortunes the same way if we ever get that chance.

    But I think there are more reasons to it…
    A few that i feel are important but have so far not read in many a debates/blogs is…
    Our much touted social, religious, communal diversity. This very diversity makes us insensitive towards other communities plight and the differences keep us away from making an united and strong effort to protest against corrupt practices.
    Over dependence on religion(god)/fate (atleast the middle class).
    The media which is a watch dog in a democratic society, itself is corrupt, making the job of aggressively protesting very-difficult and hence, most people chose the “Cant beat them, then join them” type of attitude.