Monday, January 31, 2005

To be worthy of freedom

Times of India, Jan 30, 2005

They tell me that putting my email id at the end of this column is iffy, but when a gem crosses your path, such as this one, it makes it all worthwhile. Last week a female traveller to India wrote this:

“‘We are a filthy people’ was almost right, but the problem appears to be cultural, not governmental. Women manage to find a place to urinate and defecate out of public space. It is the Indian man who has claimed an ascendant status, apparently based upon his right to urinate anywhere…what you don't mention is that hawking and spitting appears to be a national hobby, one that, to a westerner, is as appalling as Indian men using India as a toilet. And why does the Indian man keep looking for his penis? Is it not attached? It is most disconcerting to be speaking to a well-educated Indian when suddenly he goes looking for his penis. This at first was startling to me, but I see that this penis searching is merely a national preoccupation. Touring India is not for the fastidious.

“I've travelled here for almost four months; the people are lovely and charming and beautiful and kind. As I'm in the last few days…and as I'm crossing Howrah Bridge in a taxi, traffic is jammed, all going around a stalled rickshaw. An accident? Mechanical trouble? No: the rickshaw driver had stopped in the middle of the bridge to urinate!”

My reader admonishes me for blaming governance when public filth is a cultural failing. Mahatma Gandhi would have agreed. Everyone was dismayed at a famous AICC Session when he spoke endlessly on the defecating habits of the AICC delegates instead of delivering a rousing speech on swaraj. Gandhi believed that one had to be worthy of freedom and Indians needed to reform personal discipline and public hygiene in order to be worthy.

Last week’s email was equally divided between those who blamed culture and governance. One observed that upscale Khan Market in Delhi has two spotlessly clean toilets, yet men prefer to pee on the toilets’ walls. A second asked: why does the Radhasoami ashram in Beas remain spotlessly clean when the same 250,000 devotees throw trash out of their windows at home? A third looked for answers from American parents, who always remind their kids when they leave home, “Did you go to the bathroom?” He added that civics courses in American schools have helped. A fourth blames governance and is so upset with politicians that he wishes terrorists had succeeded in bombing our Parliament so that we could begin anew.

It is an old debate between those who would change culture versus those who would reform institutions. British colonial officials routinely blamed India’s poverty on our otherworldly spirituality. Max Weber, the sociologist, attributed our backwardness to the caste system. Gunnar Myrdal, the economist, also blamed our unpunctuality and poor work habits on cultural attitudes. Today, however, we are more skeptical of national stereotypes. We have seen that Indian entrepreneurs can be both extremely otherworldly in religion and aggressive in business. The Green Revolution showed that Brahmins with a contempt for manual work ploughed their land vigorously when the incentive system changed.

I prefer to focus on institutional change because it is quicker than cultural change. After all, lots of garbage bins and public toilets combined with a stiff and vigorously enforced penalty did transform Singapore’s culture. Any Indian town could do the same. This is what our reforms are all about: aligning the incentive system of institutions with people’s self-interest will bring good behaviour both from the rulers and the ruled.

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This at first was startling to me, but I see that this penis searching is merely a national preoccupation.

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