I think that most of the time, there is a grave lack of responsibility amongst us Indians. The scope and magnitude of responsibility varies greatly, depending upon the entity (or person) and it’s (or the person’s) role. A government’s responsibility would differ from that of a parent for example. A chauffeur’s responsibility would be different from that of a manager in an organization. However I am talking about responsibility, at the individual level, regardless of the person’s role or occupation. I want to highlight some basic indicators of personal responsibility, and the lack of it, in the average Indian.

Saying Sorry
On innumerable occasions over the years, I have received poor service and incorrect information from the staff in commercial and government establishments. I have observed that no one ever apologizes for their misdeeds. The lack of an apology has become (or perhaps always was) the norm in India. We accept it just as we accept corruption as normal. An apology from any Government entity – and these are the people who provide the worst quality of service with the worst possible attitude – is as rare as the Sun rising from the West. Private enterprises are only a shade better. Occasionally, an apology is forthcoming from them but it’s usually a mechanical response and not sincere. There is no meaningful attempt to remedy the situation. I think part of the reason, and a very small part at that, is simply a lack of etiquette. The greater part, I suspect, is our chauvinism. We simply don’t want to admit our mistakes. Apologizing for an error is an act of responsibility; frankly, we simply don’t have the maturity to accept responsibility for our actions, words or decisions.

Lack of Integrity
Dependability is a rare quality amongst Indians. According to me, dependability comprises two elements. The first is keeping your word. If you say you will do something, do it. This, almost never happens in India. There is no consistency between what we think, what we say and what we do. We don’t mean what we say and we don’t say what we mean. Timeliness is the other element. We don’t believe in punctuality. We rarely deliver on time. This really boils down to a lack of integrity. People always have reasons for not doing what they said they would do and/or not doing it in a timely manner. This is acceptable provided it happens once in a while. However, with us Indians, it is the norm. We really need to plan better, to execute better and we must learn to keep our word. When at the individual level we fail miserably on these counts, is it any wonder that the Indian system in general is so terrible? Integrity is also a manifestation of responsibility and most of us don’t have it.

In my opinion, the degree of honesty amongst Indians is dismally low. Most of us lie in so many different ways and/or situations. Real estate developers cheat customers; retailers over-price and under-report; candidates lie on job applications and resumes; individual fraudsters abound; we lie on our tax returns (that is when we choose to file one); we falsify documents; the work that we do falls short in terms of quality, quantity and timeliness; we even lie to each other in social interaction, most of the time I suspect, to project an image. These are just a few examples that come to mind. It is not possible to enumerate all the ways in which we practice deception on a daily basis. As a result of our dishonesty, we have created a culture of mistrust and suspicion in India. Guilty until proven innocent is the maxim by which we live. I believe that much of our dishonesty is a consequence of bad governance; specifically, the complete lack of transparency and accountability, convoluted and outdated laws, stifling bureaucracy, corrupt bureaucrats and politicians, pathetic enforcement of laws, a grossly inefficient judicial system and the list goes on and on. People become dishonest to get around an inefficient and corrupt system. Somewhere down the line, that dishonesty has spilled over into main stream society. In other words dishonesty has become a defining trait with us Indians. Honesty is another manifestation of responsibility which is generally not seen in India.

In my opinion, an Indian is congenitally prone to indiscipline. We simply do not want to follow the law. We love to take short cuts. We always want something for nothing. We can never form a straight line, that is we never stand one behind another – we must gather around like illiterate villagers. We fling footwear at others in Parliament. We express political dissent by rioting, damaging or destroying public property and intimidating ordinary citizens into supporting an (often) unreasonable cause. Our population is by and large an unruly one. A tour guide in a foreign country once told me candidly, “Indians do what they want to do”, in the context of not following instructions. Discipline is also an indicator of responsibility and we show no sign of it whatsoever.

Finding Scapegoats
We are always blaming others. The fault is never ours. In a road accident, our immediate impulse is to accuse the other person of wrong-doing. When a woman is raped the perpetrator believes the woman is to blame for provoking him. In any group activity, when things go wrong it’s always someone else’s fault. Government departments blame each other for lapses. In fact whenever there is any kind of conflict we always point the finger at someone else. Certainly, there are times when a conflict or mistake can genuinely be attributed to another department or individual, but the general trend is towards absolving ourselves. We lack the ability to introspect and analyze our part in the situation. This too, indicates a lack of responsibility.

It is my contention that a majority of Indians are guilty of these traits. I believe that our culture is severely flawed. That the chaotic state of our affairs is a direct consequence of our cultural attributes. We need to improve ourselves individually, in order to clean up our system. We need to become responsible for ourselves. In other words, we need to grow up.

Why Can’t We Form Proper Lines?

In My Wonderful City (MWC), I’ve noticed that people cannot form a queue. A queue, by definition, is a line of people standing one behind the other. There are several places where people need to form a queue – at a cinema hall to buy tickets, ticket counters at railway and bus stations, service counters at post offices and banks to name a few. Instead of standing one behind another, people form clusters. They gather around the counter. This makes it difficult to know who’s ahead of whom, thus creating an environment ripe for strife.

Cluster Syndrome
Typically, at my bank, each time I conduct my business with the teller, there are a group of people surrounding me in close proximity. Not only are they keenly interested in my transaction, they are most impatient. The second I take my money from the teller, others have shoved their hands, holding their transaction paraphernalia, into the small hole in the sheet of glass one normally finds installed at the teller’s counter. These hands effectively impede my ability to move away from the counter. With a glare at one and a sharp word at another, I usually manage to extricate myself from the “queue”.  This scenario, with a few variations, is a common sight at most establishments.

Sometimes when I arrive at the cash counter, there is no other customer present. While I wait for the teller to complete the transaction another customer arrives. Invariably, that customer stands right next to me, instead of behind me. Of course, he’s just itching to shove his hands through the opening in the teller’s window. I sense that it’s a great effort for him to hold his horses until my transaction is completed. On another occasion I was at a theatre, purchasing a ticket in advance. This time too, I was the only customer. During the transaction, another customer came and, predictably, stood right next to me. Despite knowing that the service representative was handling my business, this customer began asking questions pertaining to his transaction. Thankfully, the customer service representative did not answer the man’s questions as he was concentrating on my transaction. I was handed my ticket and while I was still waiting to receive my change, the other customer had already shoved his hand through the opening in the window. Annoyed, I asked him what his hurry was. The point being noted, he backed off, (an inch) albeit with an air of misplaced magnanimity. Indulging me, as if I was off my rocker!

Sneaky People
Then there are the line-crashers. In MWC, there is an annual cultural festival comprising mostly of concerts, plays and dance performances held over two weeks or so. There is no admission fee. There usually is a line, or at least a semblance of one, at the entrance to the venue. The cluster syndrome applies here as well. There is, however, an additional factor at these events. Many people arrive early anticipating the rush. There are also many who arrive late, some of whom have unscrupulous instincts. As people wait in line, sometimes they converse amongst themselves to kill time. Soon, a stranger arrives and joins in the conversation. The idea being to pretend as if he is part of the cluster that’s in line and thus gain entrance to the concert without having to stand at the end of the line. Most people in the line assume that this con-man is attending the concert with someone who is already in line and hence conclude that he is legitimately in line. The fake participation in the conversation misleads them.

There are others who are not so subtle. They bull-doze into the line with unbelievable chutzpah. One person in the line is soon joined by another friend. It is evident that the two are together and that it was previously planned. No objection here. Later, two more friends show up. From their conversation it is obvious that these two are indeed friends of the two in line. However, it is also clear that the two in line had not planned to attend the event with the other two. The latter two are taking advantage of the fact that their friends are already in line. Often, its not just two, but four or five or more friends who join the legitimate two. This is really not fair to those who have been patiently waiting in line for a long time. The friends who arrived later really ought to be standing at the end of the line.

Our inability to form a proper line, can be seen in the way we operate our vehicles as well. It is impossible for Indians to maintain lane discipline in traffic. I can only conclude that this lack of linearity is due to our innate indiscipline. I believe this inability to stand one behind another in a queue is an indicator of serious flaws in individual character which, when taken collectively, defines a flawed culture. Not being able to stand behind another person reflects tremendous insecurity – that others may get in front of you, or that the service representative is going to close shop any minute. It also demonstrates irrationality, immaturity and mindlessness. There is also a complete disregard for the other person’s personal space. For, in forming clusters, people have no qualms about their bodies being in physical contact with others; sweat, body odour, and sickness notwithstanding. In fact Indians have no clue about personal space or boundaries.

The line crashers demonstrate a lack of ethics. They have absolutely no sense of fair play. Such people do not have principles. Unfortunately, most Indians do not understand the meaning of principle. I believe that one’s behaviour is consistent with one’s values. When wrong values are deeply ingrained, bad behaviour automatically follows. Therefore bad behaviour always indicates bad values. Some would argue that these examples are insignificant. That jumping a line causes no serious harm. Taken in isolation, I would agree with that. However it is my observation that there is a general trend of dishonesty in India. Against this backdrop, jumping a line cannot be considered an exception and therefore forgivable. On the contrary it is yet another example of dishonesty, which fits within the cultural norm.


Along with corruption, encroachment is another widespread problem in India.  I define encroachment as people taking over land which they have no legal right to occupy.  In my opinion it is as pervasive and cancerous as corruption is, in India.

The most glaring examples are the slums in our cities.  Typically, a slum is a piece of land usually owned by the government, but illegally occupied by poor people.  Many slums grow larger over the years depending on the accessibility of the land surrounding the original area of occupation.  Slum dwellers are usually people who migrate from their villages in search of a better livelihood.  When they arrive in the city, they have no recourse but to live where they find the space.  While I sympathize with the poor, the fact remains that they are breaking the law by setting up houses, however dilapidated, on land which they have no rights over.  The government almost always, fails to nip this problem in the bud.  They simply ignore the situation in the early stages of encroachment.

As the years go by, more and more migrant workers and their families take up residence in these areas.  In a decade or two the slum population is too large to evict.  More importantly, they have now become a significant constituency in the electoral process.  At this stage politicians don’t want to displace them, in fear of losing their votes.  By not doing anything, the government validates encroachment.  The message the government of India sends out to the poor of India is that they can migrate to cities and occupy land that does not belong to them.  I am told that over 50% of Mumbai’s population lives in slums.

Street Vendors
In My Wonderful City (MWC), there are several areas where vendors have set up shop on footpaths meant for pedestrians.  In the beginning there is just one vendor sitting on the sidewalk, selling vegetables/fruits.  Soon another joins him, and another and another.  A few years later, these entrepreneurs have built stalls on the sidewalk.  Another year or two later, new vendors set up stalls.   Soon, there is no more space for new vendors to set up stalls on that particular stretch.  Next, they manage to acquire electricity to light up their stalls.  By then apparently, it’s impossible to evict them.  To be honest I am not absolutely certain that these vendors are operating illegally.  However, I am fairly sure that they are.  If it was legal and above board, would the local government really give them permission to operate on the sidewalks?  They can’t be that stupid can they?

If the encroachment is illegal then it stands to reason that the electrification is illegal too (unless the Electricity Board is stupid enough to provide electricity to these vendors).  The emotional argument is that these vendors are poor people trying to make a living.  But does that justify them breaking the law by occupying a public sidewalk?  So in MWC, not only are there few footpaths and incredibly narrow ones at that, they have all manner of obstructions on them which prevent pedestrians from using them.  On sidewalks where there are no obstructions, we have vendors setting up shop on them.  Plus we now have customers parking their vehicles near these stalls, making a narrow road even more so, thereby causing traffic congestion.  In a shopping area close to where I live, the footpath was widened, presumably for pedestrians.  However pedestrians continue to walk on the road while the footpath is being used as a parking lot for two wheelers.  Yes, they ride on the footpath to park their vehicles.  These vehicle owners are also encroachers.

Street Shrines
I have personally witnessed this in several places in MWC.  Walking along a road one fine day I see that someone has placed a deity on the sidewalk with agarbati (incense sticks) and flowers.  Six months down the line, I see that the deity now has a formal seat with accompanying minor deities, more flowers, more agarbatis and an offering of fruits.  I also notice a small box for donations.  A year later, the deity is larger and housed in a proper room built on the sidewalk.  A few more years pass and the room is expanded and a mini temple is born.  There are now throngs of people queuing up to worship the deity on important religious occasions.  As usual the government has done nothing to nip this problem in the bud.  They believe that taking action now would displease the public who may then retaliate by voting them out of office.  That the law has been broken is of no consequence to anyone.

Upper Class Encroachers
These are not poor people.  These are people who are educated and doing fairly well financially.  I have come across many house owners who occupy a small portion of land beyond the boundaries of their property.  They do this by creating a two feet wide garden patch outside and along their property wall.  After a while a fence comes up to protect this garden patch from stray animals while at the same time finalizing the encroachment.  Some people cement a similar portion of land outside the boundary of their property.  Then they place a row of huge pots with plants on this area to prevent others from parking their vehicles outside their home.

There are tenants who refuse to vacate a house or an apartment when asked to by the owner.  Eventually the tenant leaves after extorting a huge sum of money from the owner.  Naturally this money is not reported on tax returns.  Tenants live in apartments or houses for years and refuse to pay the incremental increases in rent over the years.  This results in a cold war between the tenant and the owner and then the tenant simply stops paying any rent.  The owner retaliates by refusing to pay for the maintenance of the dwelling.  If either of the parties goes to court to seek justice, the matter remains pending in the judicial system for decades.  I am told that tenancy laws have undergone changes and things are less problematic than before but despite this many owners prefer to keep their apartments vacant rather than take any chances with unscrupulous tenants.

Changing Our Mind Set
The reasons for encroachments are many.  Governance is poor, laws are outdated, the police are corrupt and inefficient, while the judiciary is impotent.  I believe that one cannot blame the government entirely.  The Indian public is equally at fault.  We simply do not believe in following rules.  We have no sense of boundaries and hence crossing the line comes easily to us.  We are driven by emotions and not reason.  We simply don’t understand principles and ethics.  We expect the government to enforce the rules while we break them constantly.  We are an immature people who do not realize that we are the system.  We have to be law-abiding ourselves to ensure that the system works smoothly and fairly.  We have to change our mind-set.  Unless this happens nothing will change in India.


Indian society has degenerated to the extent that corruption has become an acceptable norm in day-to-day life.  It is not possible for an Indian citizen to lead a completely honest life.  It is understood that we have to pay bribes at various stages of our children’s education (euphemistically called “donations”), right from kindergarten to college.  To secure admission to professional colleges, the donation demanded ranges from lakhs to over a crore!  We pay bribes to obtain a driver’s license; a passport; a domicile certificate; a birth certificate; a death certificate; to register weddings; to register property; to get licenses for commercial activity; in fact, to obtain just about any document or permission from any government agency; even to facilitate the mere moving of files/papers from one officer/department to another.  The citizen cannot fight corruption through the Police and/or the Judiciary as these authorities are highly corrupt as well.

Incredible India
We have reached this stage primarily on account of those who govern our country.  I believe that the majority of our politicians and bureaucrats are corrupt to the core.  If there was a way to examine the financial details of every single politician and government officer, before they joined politics/government and during their tenure; I am sure the data would show that the majority of them have accumulated assets disproportionate to their legitimate sources of income.  In my opinion, politicians and bureaucrats have literally looted the Indian public much more than any foreign power/invader ever has in the history of India.  Thanks to them, “Incredible India” is rated amongst the most corrupt nations of the world.

In the early decades after independence, we followed a Socialist model, which created a “license and quota raj”.  Business owners had to resort to bribery in order to survive and remain profitable.  Corruption existed in the higher echelons of society.  In the past few decades however, corruption has permeated down to the common man.  The Government is the major source of corruption.  This is because India is both over-regulated as well as governed badly.  Our (out-dated and impractical) laws have become weapons, wielded by an army of bureaucrats, to extort money from citizens.  Then, there are kickbacks which our politicians and bureaucrats shamelessly accept, in billions, from parties involved in government transactions of high value.  The endless list of scams exposed by the media over the years proves this.  There really is no limit to the greed demonstrated by those who govern us, regardless of their political affiliations.

Black Money
In the real estate sector, ordinary people are forced to become dishonest because they cannot buy or sell property without paying or receiving a significant portion of the amount in black.  Politicians and bureaucrats make a killing in property deals because of their clout and inside information.  An unimaginable amount of black money is generated through real estate transactions.  I personally know an NRI businessman who wanted to purchase commercial property to set up an office in India.  The seller demanded a huge amount of black money, which the NRI businessman simply didn’t have because of the high degree of honesty and transparency in his country of residence.  His firm would have had to pay the full amount in white and accept a receipt for only half the amount.  This would have caused them major problems with the tax authority of the foreign country.  As a result, the deal fell through.

Transparency, Accountability and Reforms
I think corruption can be removed with transparency, accountability, administrative reforms and a change of attitude amongst the people.  While a change in attitude is going to take several more generations, we can at least focus on the former three, right now.  We can begin by making government processes transparent.  It is the nature of politicians and bureaucrats to hide their incompetence and thievery by keeping the public either uninformed or misinformed.  Information regarding processes and fees, must be freely available to the public.  Next, improve productivity in government jobs by conducting performance appraisals and sack employees who are dishonest or do not perform.  It is because government employees cannot be sacked, that they get away with shoddy work and dishonesty.  Eliminate or at least reduce the discretionary powers granted to politicians and civil servants.  Drastically reduce the perquisites that come with government jobs.  We can’t afford to have senior bureaucrats and politicians globe-trotting with their families and living in plush homes in prime localities, with free amenities and huge allowances, at public expense!

We need to introduce reforms across the board.  We need to improve our laws – get rid of antiquated ones and bring in new ones which are more appropriate for our times.  Politicians with criminal records should be barred from contesting elections. Elected representatives facing criminal charges should be forced to resign.  Corruption goes unchecked because there is no justice in this country.  The guilty are never punished while the innocent are made to suffer.  The Judiciary works too slowly and rarely delivers justice.  The Police are just as inefficient and puppets of politicians.  We need to completely overhaul both organizations.  There is a lot that can be done.  The question is will the government do it?  The administrators of the system are the ones who benefit the most, by the inefficiencies of the system.  So why would they change the system?  A year or two ago, there was a huge outburst from the public at large to protest corruption in government.  The leaders of that movement propose an independent body to monitor and adjudicate cases of corruption.  I am not sure that that is the right way to proceed.  How will we ensure that this proposed body will not be corrupt?   I think we need to strengthen the existing structure through reforms and better implementation.

Change of Attitude
On the surface, corruption stems from bad governance.  If we look deeper though, I think it reflects a seriously flawed culture.  We lack integrity.  Dishonesty, greed, incompetence and the absence of a work ethic have become the defining values of our society.  People really don’t understand principles and ethics.  We have lost our moral compass and our collective conscience.  Such muddy waters cannot produce clean leaders, at least not in sufficient numbers.  The only way forward is for each of us to be the change we want to see around us.

Traffic and Traits

I think the behaviour of people in traffic, reflects their culture.  On daily travels around My Wonderful City (MWC), I’ve made a few observations and drawn some (cultural) inferences.

In MWC, I routinely see people driving through an intersection despite having a red signal.  It happens more often at intersections where there are no policemen in sight.  Worse, when one or two drivers go against the red light, it is taken as license for those behind to do the same.  In fact, drivers horn angrily at those in front of them, who choose to abide by the rules and are patiently waiting for the green light.

At a red signal, one expects drivers to stop in the appropriate lane.  Meaning, if one wishes to make a right turn, one would stop in the right lane.  In MWC, however, people frequently come to a halt on the extreme left, when they want to make a right turn.  Consequently, they block those who wish to turn left and when the light turns green they block those who want to go straight.

It is common to see vehicles driven on the wrong side of the road for some distance, instead of following the rules, which would entail a longer path. Worse, these drivers horn in irritation at those who come in their way.

At a busy intersection near my home, due to the heavy traffic waiting at a red light, two-wheelers are regularly ridden on the footpath to gain some distance.  Worse, the riders glare and horn at pedestrians walking on the footpath, as they try to get by.

On the streets, Might is Right.  Drivers in bigger vehicles believe they have the right of way at all times.  There is an implied hierarchy on the streets.  As a rule of thumb, the cyclist yields to all vehicles, two wheelers yield to cars, cars yield to buses.  The pedestrian has no rights.  She or He is looked upon as a hindrance to the smooth flow of traffic.  Zebra crossings have no meaning in MWC.  All drivers bring their vehicles to a halt on the zebra crossing, sometimes even beyond.

There appears to be a perception that overtaking the vehicle in front of you is a mark of good driving.   There seems to be an urgent need to get ahead of the other person.  Nobody wants to drive one behind another, in an orderly fashion.  As a friend once observed, “sabko first aana hai”.  While the rule is to overtake from the right, drivers overtake from the left as well as the right.  Worse, drivers have come to believe that they have the right of way, when they are overtaking you from the left side.

When a driver is stopped by the police for a traffic offence, the most common argument is “Why are you stopping me?  Why are you letting that person go?”  This is a ridiculous argument.  For various reasons, some traffic violators are lucky enough to escape the policeman but that does not exonerate the violator who is caught.  The fact is that the person who has been caught, has broken a traffic rule and must suffer the consequences.

The use of horns is unbelievable.  People are almost constantly horning at the traffic around them.  With so many drivers horning at the same time, it is difficult for you as a driver, to know if the horn is being directed at you or someone else.  Worse, I have seen people horn on streets where there is almost no traffic; where there is absolutely no need to horn.  They horn partly because it has become a habit, but also because subconsciously, they know they are speeding and want everyone out of their way.

It is common to see drivers flashing their lights at the vehicle in front of them.  This is a signal to the driver in front to move out of the way.  First of all, this is not an official traffic rule, at least not for city driving.  It’s a practice which started on the old highways where there was only one lane for traffic in both directions.  The width of the highway could only accommodate two vehicles side by side. 

Therefore to overtake a vehicle, a driver had to be on the wrong side of the road.  Thus, the driver would flash his lights to warn an oncoming vehicle.  Nowadays drivers flash their lights on city roads and at the drop of a hat, simply because they want someone to move out of their way.  Even when there is no space for the driver in front to move to.  Flashing your lights does not give you any special right over the driver in front of you.  So why do people flash their lights?

Over the years, the use of turn indicators has gone up which is certainly good – but it’s often misused.  Many drivers turn their indicators on at the last possible moment, believing that others must instantly yield to them.  They don’t realize that people behind them are in momentum and cannot be expected to suddenly stop and allow you to cut across just because you have suddenly turned on your indicator.

We think it’s alright to go against a red light when there is no policeman in sight.  We seem to think “Unless there is a policeman, I am not obligated to follow traffic rules”.  We believe that it is the government’s job to make us follow the law.  What we don’t realize is that a system of laws only works when the population is law-abiding.  In any country in the world, if the masses decide to break the law there is nothing a government can do.  A system works only as long as the people are willing participants.  Instead, we believe that the government has to do everything for us, including forcing us to follow laws.  We don’t accept responsibility for ourselves.

We are conformists. We feel justified in doing something when we find that most people are doing it.  Hence when we see others breaking traffic rules we start breaking them too.  This rationale applies in other situations as well.  “So and so cheats on his taxes and he has not been caught so why shouldn’t I cheat on my taxes as well?”  “No one comes on time so why should I be punctual?”  “Others charge so much extra for this so why shouldn’t I do the same?”  “That officer takes bribes to sanction a license so why shouldn’t I do the same?”  “That politician has acquired crores through illegal means so why shouldn’t I do it too?” Every single day countless Indians break laws, in every imaginable sphere of activity on the basis that others are doing the same thing.  By and large, we don’t think for ourselves.

Our behaviour on the streets reflects our feudal culture.  We have a deeply embedded sense of hierarchy.  We believe that we must have things our way because we are in the bigger vehicle.  If not the size of the vehicle, it can also be the position and status (real or imagined) of the vehicle’s occupant.  No one stops to think that the law applies equally to all drivers on the road.  Everyone horns at everyone, each expecting the other to yield to him, and to make matters worse, egos step in to add fuel to the fire.  Indians simply do not understand the principle of equality.

We display impatience, indiscipline, immaturity, and utter mindlessness on our roads.  The same qualities are reflected in other activities, including the governance of our country. The result is that India is a mess. Until the underlying culture changes, there can be no meaningful improvement in the country.

Where Are We Heading?

India has undoubtedly made tremendous progress since independence. With the economic liberalization launched in the 90’s, change has been both positive and dramatic. Rising incomes, greater employment opportunities, a larger and wealthier middle class, a consumer boom, a thriving real estate market and the emergence of the IT industry, to describe a few examples. However, to quote a Paul Simon song, after changes upon changes, things are more or less the same…… We are still unable to provide all our citizens a 24-hour supply of electricity and water. Our infrastructure remains woefully inadequate. The quality of our civil services is pathetic. Our governance is shoddy. The judiciary is in shambles. Crime has increased manifold. Corruption has become so rampant that it is now impossible for citizens to lead a completely honest life.

Anyone who has visited any developed nation is instantly impressed by the general orderliness of those countries. Those nations are democracies just as we are. Their constitutions embody the same principles as ours does. Yet there is a world of a difference between their standards and ours. We take pride in calling ourselves the largest democracy in the world but has anyone stopped to think about the quality of our democracy? We are a democracy only in terms of electing a government periodically. In all other measures of democracy we fare miserably. For instance, a few months ago I read a news item in the papers. In a murder case, the accused was acquitted by a High Court. An eyewitness, who had deposed in the trial, criticized the acquittal when interviewed by a journalist. In response, the High Court slapped a contempt of court suit against him. What kind of democracy is this where a person cannot freely comment on a court’s judgement? This effectively means that our citizens don’t really have freedom of speech. What I considered more shocking was that there was absolutely no comment on this by our intelligentsia. Arundhati Roy went through a similar situation some years ago when she protested against a Supreme Court ruling in connection with the Narmada River Valley project. I can assure you that in the USA at least, any person can openly criticize any court decision (including the Supreme Court) without fear of reprisal of any sort. Judges there are secure enough not to feel insulted by criticism.

I believe that there are cultural reasons for the poor quality of our democracy. A system is truly democratic only when its people are democratic by nature. Indians are a feudal people living in a democratic system. Integrity and equality, two intrinsically democratic values, are alien concepts to us. Little wonder then that the spirit of democracy gets short shrift in our country. I have often heard the refrain that the developed countries function better because they have better systems in place. Well, they certainly do, but it’s not just the system per se that matters. What is perhaps more important is the quality of the people in that system. It is the collective effort of a generally disciplined, efficient, sensible and honest people that creates an enviable system. Imagine for a moment that the entire population of the US magically disappears overnight, leaving all the existing systems intact. Let us also suppose that about 270 million people (the approximate population of the US), randomly selected from India, are transplanted in the US and take over that country. I am of the firm opinion that these transplanted Indians will reduce the US to the quality of a third world nation within a matter of a decade or two. My point is that we simply don’t have the maturity or the mindset to create or maintain a progressive democracy.

Reforms Every Which Way
In addition to economic reforms, we need administrative reforms, legislative reforms, judicial reforms as well as cultural reforms. Systemic reforms alone, will have little meaning without a change in our attitudes. India will be truly empowered only when each of us practices integrity and equality. I use the word integrity not in terms of just honesty, but also in terms of function. In other words a consistency between thought, speech and action. One of the things that strike me about the US is that by and large people there actually say what they mean and do what they say they will do. Things promised are delivered in good quality and on time. This is not true of Indians. We are a people who say one thing, mean something else and do yet another. As a result, Indians are simply not dependable. This is borne out by the fact that in India we have to constantly chase people to get things done.

People routinely promise things and fail to deliver. A colleague promises to meet you at a certain time but shows up half an hour later. Your lawyer promises to draw up some papers in a day or two but actually does so in a few months. The tailor promises to have your clothes ready tomorrow but actually takes six weeks. Your friend promises to repay a loan you gave him, in two months but in reality he takes two years. Your mechanic says the car is repaired and either it’s not properly done or it comes back with some other defect, which was not there originally. Your building contractor takes an advance from you only to disappear without fulfilling the contract. Payments are routinely delayed in the business world.

Lack Of Integrity
These are the day-to-day occurrences that demonstrate a lack of integrity in us. Little things, you might argue, but it’s precisely this “chalta hai” attitude which contributes to a degradation in our national character. Lack of integrity at the individual level certainly translates into lack of integrity at the organizational level. Simply because individual attributes dictate the manner in which an individual performs at the work place. Be it the government, a private enterprise, a social organization or a student organization, there is ample evidence of inefficiency, indiscipline, mediocrity and dishonesty. For this to change we must, as individuals, begin to practice and value integrity by becoming accountable to ourselves in the first place.

Equality – Whats That?
Another major weakness in our society is a complete disregard for the notion of equality. Certainly the principle of equality is expressed in our constitution. In practice though, we are definitely not an egalitarian society. It’s not just gender equality that I am speaking about. There is an overall chauvinism that is obvious in our society. A sense of social hierarchy is deeply embedded in the Indian psyche. Each person intuitively categorizes another into a social grouping defined by caste, (perceived) status, position or power. Furthermore, we consider each person as being “above” us or “below” us. Best expressed in Hindi as “… aap bade aadmi hai, hum chhote aadmi hai…”. Depending on our classification, or need of the moment, we are either sycophantic with those we perceive as being “above” us or arrogant with those we perceive as being “below” us. Very rarely do we treat each other on genuine equal footing.

For example, at work, managers talk down to those below them and sweet talk those above them. At home families talk down to the servants they employ while the servants are well, servile. On the streets, drivers of larger vehicles believe they have a greater right of way than those driving smaller vehicles. Our government functions more like a repressive and authoritarian parent rather than an equal participant in a democratic system. The junta are viewed as subjects and not as citizens. Bureaucrats behave in a high-handed manner when interacting with ordinary citizens but become boot lickers when interacting with those who have more power than them. This type of behaviour is akin to the “survival of the fittest” law of the jungle. We are a highly egotistical and emotional people. Every conflict, large or small, invariably becomes a prestige issue. Sooner or later the original issue is forgotten, the conflict degenerates into a clash of egos and the feud becomes personal and hurtful. There is simply no evidence of unbiased reasoning. We don’t reason. We only express emotion. This leads me to characterize Indian society as one that is still hopelessly juvenile.

To be empowered, Indians must begin to treat each other with respect and equality. If we begin practicing integrity and equality at the individual level, we can accomplish several important changes in our collective character. For one, hypocrisy will disappear. Substance will gain precedence over appearance. Merit will be rewarded as opposed to sycophancy. Reason will prevail over ego and emotion. Dignity of labour will finally be a reality in India. Our self-esteem will get a tremendous boost. Perhaps then, we will truly be a super power.