Friday, January 01, 2010

Future is Ours To Seek

Two trends, one good and one bad, have defined India’s first decade of the 21st century. The good trend is that prosperity has begun to spread, largely as a result of high economic growth. The second trend is the simultaneous rise in corruption. The lazy minded will connect the two trends, but in fact they are quite independent. High growth has been fostered by economic reforms and corruption is due to the lack of the reform of state institutions.

For the first time in history Indians are beginning to emerge from a struggle against want into an age when the large majority will soon be at ease. Like many parts of Asia, India too is slowly turning into a middle class nation. This is not happening uniformly--Gujarat is well ahead of Bihar, but even Bihar will catch up. At that point poverty will not vanish, but the poor will come down to a manageable level and the politics of the country will also change. This is the good news.

The bad news is that prosperity is spreading alongside the most appalling governance. In the midst of a booming private economy, Indians despair over the delivery of the simplest public services. It used to be the other way around. During our socialist days we despaired over economic growth but we were proud of our institutions. Today, the Indian state is in steady decline. Where it is desperately needed--in providing education, health, and drinking water--it continues to perform appallingly. Where it is not needed, it is hyperactive in tying us in miles of red tape.

When I speak of governance failure, I am not thinking only of the politician--Madhu Koda--caught with a bribe. Almost every transaction of the Indian citizen with the state is morally flawed. I have to renew my driver’s license in a few weeks and I am already worried if I will have to bribe someone. It is the poor, however, who depend most on public services and are the least capable of paying bribes. Year after year Transparency International ranks India amongst the most corrupt. In 2005, of the 11 public services it surveyed, India’s police were the most corrupt with 80% of the citizens admitting that they had to bribe someone in the police to get their work done. 40% had paid a bribe to influence the legal system. One in three parents reported bribing a government school or primary health centre. Yet it is these schools and health centres where one in four teachers is absent and where two out of five doctors do not show up. A farmer in an Indian village cannot hope to get a clear title to his land without bribing the patwari or talathi. It is only when I discovered, however, that one out of five members of the Indian parliament in 2004 had criminal charges against him did I lose hope.

What is eating away at our moral fabric is thus not the big scam which grabs the headlines—jehadi terrorism, Gujarat 2002, Naxalism. It is these quiet, everyday failures. When a school teacher is absent, he wounds the dharma of our society, which has always regarded the guru on a pedestal. He also gives his students a terrible lesson in civic virtue. Governance failure is both institutional and moral. If you punished one absentee school teacher, the others would show up. But to teach with inspiration, you need the call of dharma. Artha, material well being, and dharma, moral well being, are two out of the four aims of the sensible Indian way of life. While artha is rising, dharma has been falling during the past decade.

Hence, the reform of the Indian state is even more important today than economic reform. It is also more difficult because it is the rulers who are the oppressors and have the most to lose. We desperately need police, judicial, administrative and political reform. Many societies that we admire today, such as the UK, once suffered from poor governance. But they threw up leaders—Gladstone, Disraeli, Thatcher—who had the courage to fight vested interests and implement reforms. It is one thing to win power and another to wield it. The Congress party has learned to win elections but it has forgotten that it will be thrown out unless it improves governance.

The Mahabharata also had a problem with the self-destructive, kshatriya institutions of its time, and it had to wage a war to cleanse them. Draupadi’s call for accountability in public life in the Sabhaparvan ought to be our inspiration. She questioned the dharma of the rulers when confronted with governance failure. When there is no other recourse, citizens must be prepared to wage a Kurukshetra-like war against corrupt government institutions in order to bring accountability into public life.
Gurcharan Das is the author of the Difficulty of Being Good: on the subtle art of dharma



very much enjoyed reading the real and honest post.
is there a method to end/ combat institutional corruption? not just in india, everywhere? is transparency enough? an appeal to a higher moral code? do you think this is an issue that will take time to correct, or is it possible for drastic measures need to be take to a quick change ? what kind of war can be waged against a corrupt govt. ?

Sanjay Uvach said...

The one thing we need to do first in our war against corruption is to try and devise metrics to measure corruption. While we take comfort in the Transparency Intl studies that rate us slightly ahead of our Asian & African neighbours, internally we are fast reaching a stage where 'corruption' is becoming institutionalised and a norm. Only a clearer measure of our state of corruption will raise the required public opinion to take on Corruption.

Sanjay Uvach
Corruption Free India

vinaypchandra said...

It was indeed a very well said article. I think if Im alone fighting for a cause there is a fear of me or my family being tortured or even killed. But if all anti-corruption activists get together and ask it may work.

Unknown said...

I agree with many of your views on the issue and believe that following the morals of Indian living is great way forward. But how do you think we can achieve that in the current scenario? Awareness is clearly not what is lacking and nor is the will to bring about change.

What do you think a government that sits atop such systems can do? What specific reforms can you suggest? I would really appreciate your reply. Thank you.

Mohan said...

I read your recent book. I wish you come to know about the huge quantity of didactic literature in Tamil. our ancients knew the immense opportunities humans have to be corrupt and hhence were prolix in producing didactic literature.your harking back only made me yearn for similar works on what is available in Tamil.

G said...

I hope you will take the time to read Sankrant Sanu's article in its entirety. I am yet to read a more compelling work on the psychological reasons for the state of our nation.

The English Class System

Colonization is perpetuated through the state-supported institutions that are the legacy of British rule and it is these institutions that will need to be changed to remedy its effects.

A first step would be the exploration of converting all English-medium schools into, at the very least, dual-medium schools, through changes at the central board level in CBSE and ICSE. In particular, there is very little reason that social sciences need to be studied in English. This will allow proficiency to develop in native Indian languages that will increase demand for written materials in native languages.

Learning of multiple Indian languages should be encouraged in different ways.

Priya said...

i have just finished reading your book on the difficulty of being good.Thank you for the book.It answered many questions that i have been wrestling with and definitely helped me further delineate and strengthen my own moral framework.Thank you for bringing to us the wisdom of our civilization.

Prasad said...

Few days ago I read that around 2Lakh prisoners in India awaiting for their first trial in the court & most of them completed maximum punishment for the crime before there first hearing. This is our speed to sort out the pending issues. 26/11 was the best chance to implement the police reforms but still we are thinking to implement it.
Some times I wonder that why any politician would like to implement it if he would be the most affected person after its implementation. People can only change politicians or select politicians but they get the chance once in 5 years & politicians control rest of the 5 year.

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Unknown said...

if you really want to understand how our future citizenry is trained and formed, look at the most basic of our institutions: the family. see how the child learns how to speak untruths and treat public property with contempt. see how selfish and ignorant adults teach their young to humiliate the less fortunate from a position of strength. when you see children ill-treat the domestic servant, litter the country, vandalise walls and parks, destroy young trees within their reach, kick stray animals, cheat at exams with the full support of parents, ignore traffic rules, produce fake documents to get illegal entry into other countries, you will know exactly what it is to be an indian. you are despairing at the plight of the poor who are unable to participate in the corruption because of no funds. i am despairing at the circumstances which demand bribery and corruption. our politicians were children once, their minds were formed at the feet of their parents. our violent bigotted youth also got training at home. we lack moral fibre, we are experts in the art of cruelty and dishonesty, insincerity and selfishness. we are bad seed from which deformed and diseased trees will grow. i laugh at the people who point the finger at "govt" as if it is an alien creature suddenly born out of the blue. this evil thing is made up of ordinary indians, who are in office because other ordinary citizens voted for or bought them into power. how many lives are we going to waste in not accepting our part in creating a nation which is rated as the "most corrupt"? there must be some poison in the air over here which encourages the growth of corruption and decays our souls. why do i think this? because an indian outside the nation is equally honest, sincere, law abiding, kind to animals, an avid supporter of various charities, hardworking and studious. they apply for drivers' licence through legal channels, gain admissions in schools and colleges on merit alone. can someone explain this to me?

Unknown said...

In my school days I didnt like history . As I grew up and stated my Engineering like many of my fnds I faced an identity crisis. I wanted to know more about my country and how it formed. In our school we learn abt the great Indian Freedom fight for our independence and other heroes. Although we ought to salute and revere them fo their sacrifice but it has been 60 years sice independence I feel we need to learn abt the more near past that has shaped today's present . On that note your book India unbound has been very filling .
Today I work as an IT professional in India's silicon valley . Recently I am feeling an urge of going back to my home state bengal and do something meaningful for the country. Very reluctantly I am thinking abt joining Political party . However whenever this thought occurs in my mind I hear my father's dissapointed voice . The last thing he would want me to do is to turn a politician . I have a responsibility towrds my parents and my fiance . I am in a dilema as I know the only way to bring abt a change in India's politics is to join it and change it from within !

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