By Vijay Darda | 29-12-2014
As a country, I think we can very easily claim the first prize for being populated by persons who do brag about their ancestral ownership over a rich culture and an ancient civilisation rooted in eternal humane ideals, yet practise the poorest sense of values. Here I do not single out individual incidents of selfish greed or maximising gains at all costs. For me, the touchstone is the collective approval of such acts, as reflected by the ‘chalta hai’ attitude. It is our ability to rationalise all flaws, and live with them without any sense of unease that strengthens our claims to this prize.
I am aware that all such concerns are dismissed quite cynically, but this in itself is at the root of this ‘chalta hai’ attitude. The implication of this dominant trait, is that nothing changes, even after some of the biggest changes have been ushered in. Take the case of the quality of our public services. For too long, it was being argued that privatisation of the different sectors would result in the desired qualitative improvement. Like the quality of education would improve, the healthcare would become better or for matter the private airlines would serve us professionally. The logic behind such a proposition was that competition would foster such improvements. But then our rich culture, and poor values syndrome has not lost much time in establishing its dominance over everything else.
The rot surfaces its head in many ways. You have higher education slums that pass off as private universities and charge fees through the roof. There are private healthcare institutions that indulge in all kinds of medical malpractices and fleece patients. Then there are private airlines without any regulatory mechanism for fares. There aren’t any regulatory mechanisms. In India, through our greed and exploitative mentality, we have managed to turn the phrase – the consumer is the king on its head. We have managed to create a situation in which the consumer is at the mercy of the service provider. His helplessness at any stage is a good enough reason for the educational institution, healthcare provider or the airlines to make a quick buck. Of course, it does help these businesses that the Indian market at any stage is a seller’s market. The demand for goods and services is always greater than the supply.
But it is here that the sense of responsibility and the need to put in practice a value system that comes into play. Admitted that a middle class parent intent on getting his child admitted to a good school ( the term being used relatively) is willing to pay for it. Or for that matter someone who can afford treatment in a private hospital does get admitted into it in emergency situations, and likewise a person makes last minute travel plans – then the next ethical question for this country is whether these situations create the moral and legal justification for people in the position to provide such services to indulge in ‘extortion.’ If you look at the amounts that are charged by schools for admissions into the kindergarten, or the hospital bills of patients (all running into lakhs of rupees), and the airfares by private airlines (with domestic fares exceeding international ones), then the term ‘extortion’ would appear to be a mild description. Shouldn’t there be some rationale in all this? Shouldn’t the people who run such businesses have a conscience of their own? Shouldn’t they refuse to step into a culture of profiteering?
Or are we content with being a nation bereft of any sense of moral values? Will we keep behaving in the same fashion that exposes the mentality that is observed in crowded unreserved coaches of Indian railways – close the door to anyone who wants to come in after we have found a cosy place for ourselves? Will public decency never be a part of our behaviour? These are troubling questions, and I am afraid so far there have been no easy answers. The crisis has been there for a long time, but is now being accentuated by growing urbanisation, pressures of growing aspirational population on services, the evolution of technology and the fact that in its embrace of ‘free market’ strategies that country has not been able to put in place the desired regulatory mechanisms. The Uber rape case in the national capital is a classic example of the havoc that is played when all these factors get to work in an explosive cocktail.
As a democracy, it is natural that we have a tendency towards self-regulation and avoid excessive third party or government controls. But then such a situation can prevail only if the balance is not skewed in favour of one party – in this case the service provider. Or else howsoever abhorrent government controls may be, they seem to be the only available option. The private service providers in different sectors are simply leading us to such situations, although they may cry hoarse about the loss of their autonomy or market freedom. The mantra in such cases is pretty simple: Either selfregulate or be ready for regulation. Indeed, what holds true for private service providers also applies to private citizens. The attendant restrictions on freedom are then a natural corollary.
The bigger picture being that we as a country cannot hope to become a major global economic player without shedding this approach of being a society with rich ancient culture and poor values. Tourism of the international variety is a major image maker, and all these elements only add to the negative perception of our country. Every incident is a major cumulative blow in this respect and not just an insignificant piece of statistics.
Before I conclude…
A word about Bharat Ratnas There is a sense of shared joy and happiness about the Bharat Ratna award for Atalji. From the time he first became a member of the Lok Sabha in 1957, and then for the next five decades or so in active public life, Atal Bihari Vajpayee has been the role model of a public representative, he surely deserves this honour and has been worthy of it. But then a successful democracy demands bipartisan agreement on key issues. A Bharat Ratna for Atalji from the UPA would have been better for democracy. But then from the UPA the message was that perhaps the cricketer Sachin Tendulkar comes ahead of Atalji in the pecking order. Sachin’s deeds on the cricket field are without parallel, and there is no comparison between him and Atalji. But then as a country it is still not late for us. We should take the politics out of Bharat Ratnas. Pray why honour Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya only from the pre-independence era? Two wrongs seldom make one right.