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Saturday, April 13, 2002

An acquaintance once remarked, “If anybody came up to me and said ‘India’s problems can be solved if the population is reduced by half’, I am willing to die”.

It doesn’t require such a great sacrifice to set India right. Nor does that kind of sacrifice guarantee things will be right in the end. Wasn’t our population half the present size only a few decades ago? Haven’t we managed to bungle? Far from any guaranteed success, we would have the additional problem of disposing off 500 million bodies!

Apart from population, poverty and illiteracy, it has become fashionable to attribute a good share of our problems to the decline in values. Many believe that corruption, lawlessness and criminalization of politics are consequences of declining values. They helplessly shake their head and predict that unless people change, we are all doomed.

The truth is that values are roughly the same in every culture and civilisation throughout history. A small fraction of population always has inherent sense of values that do not require to be enforced by external compulsion – be it social sanction or law enforcement. Similarly there is always a small fraction of population that tends to indulge in bad behaviour unless restrained firmly by society or law. If good behaviour is rewarded and bad behaviour is punished consistently, most people tend to behave well, but if the contrary is true, most people maximize short-term private gain at the cost of society. In effect, the overall societal behaviour is a reflection of the ability of law and society to reward good behaviour, or correct bad behaviour.

Take a planeload of Indians travelling west either for pleasure, business, study or work. Most of them who are not used to observing any rules behave differently soon after landing. They notice in the airport that people are standing in lines, people are following the rules of the road, and if by force of habit they lower the window to throw a piece of paper immediately their host warns them against it. If they are students or job seekers, the bitter cold is no reason for coming late to school or work and ignorance of the cultural habits of the new land is no excuse for deviant behaviour. The slow learner painfully realises that  violation of even simple rules is followed by fines, penalties or loss of job.

If after some years of stay in the west, these same people return to India and try to drive the way they do abroad, they soon realise that everybody is overtaking them on all sides and it would take them a painfully long time to reach their destination! Or if they do business the same way as abroad, nothing gets done without greasing palms. Most people fall in line quickly and they seek short-term gain at the cost of society.

This crisis is not essentially on account of decline in values in society, nor is it because we have the wrong kind of people in politics, bureaucracy and judiciary. We have designed a system where it is extremely difficult to do good, but bad behaviour is lavishly rewarded.

Corruption, lawlessness and criminalization are merely manifestations of failure of governance. Gladstone, the British statesman of 19th century said, “the purpose of a government is to make it easy for people to do good, and difficult to do evil.” Our government does the exact opposite, and the results are predictable. If we care for our children’s future, all we need to do is work for better governance. Complaining about values will take us nowhere.

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