Sunday, March 12, 2006

Where wrong is right ...

There have been umpteen times when I have been part of never-ending, pointless discussions on corruption in India. While lots of us know this really well, in our heart, that a miracle alone will help us change this 'national' habit, I have been thinking a bit about what makes almost an entire nation close their collective conscience and join in the fun that goes on everyday.

If you are from a middle-class background in India, like me, chances are that somewhere or the other, you have seen corruption, even been a part of it. Even the most chaste of us will certainly have at least contemplated tipping off that annoying policeman who stops you at the signal for no apparent reason and demands to see your PUC.

I was thinking about this for some time now, having knowingly or unknowingly been part of this culture, on whats wrong will all of us. (Yes, all of us. We have to accept responsibility for the system we are living in.) I realized that somewhere we have stopped thinking that there is anything wrong with doing this. That we own our money and what we do with it is nobody else's business.

A particular incident comes to mind. I worked for a software firm for two years and was given a tax-benefit if I could submit medical bills for the entire amount allocated. When the time came to submit this, I realized I had not really purchased any significant medicines, and so would not get the tax benefit. When I talked with several colleagues about this, some of them told me that neither had they. They explained to me that many medical shop owners would give you a bill for any amount, if you paid them some percentage of the money you got.

What disturbs me now is that how easy it seemed. At that moment it seemed such a routine procedure for many of them that I did not even feel there is anything wrong with that. It was just another thing that people were 'getting done'. They did not want to give away that money to a government which was not repairing their roads, which was not promising them electricity, which was not affording them security. In their enormous 'wrong' was a small 'right', which overrode any conscientous appeals.

I had almost made up my mind to do the same. Never once thought that there was something wrong with it. When I came home, I was discussing something with my Mom and the topic came up. I casually told her what everyone was doing and that it was a great way to save money. Suddenly my mom's expression changed. A look of disappointment came over her, and she said in a low tone, "Thats a nice idea you have there." She did not say anything more, nor did she try to stop me. But she was disappointed with me, and for the first time, I felt I was actually doing something wrong.

The more I thought about it, the more I couldn't believe, that all this while I was actually going to do this. That it never struck me that it was wrong to do so. And I wondered why... Because it seemed like the normal way of life. Everyone was doing it. I had failed my mother's expectations that day. Needless to say, I paid the entire amount.

But the incident taught me that not everyone who engages in corruption really knows he is doing something wrong. So many things become a way of life, we stop thinking about them. I remember a distant friend from a small town, who was trying hard to become an inspector. When I asked him why he was opting for this career, he said that the job would give him a way to earn from many 'sources', apart from his salary. He said it with the ease and innocence that only a small-towner can. For years, he had dreamt of the good city life, and had seen friends settle from the little lanes to the big houses. And they were seen as huge successes back home. What they did was a model. They had overcome the fate that the ignorant goverment system had relegated them to. They had 'conquered' the city, they had brought happiness to their old poor parents, they were good people. And so, when someone grew up with dreams of being like them, the notion of wrongness did not even exist. This was something right, this 'felt' right...

There will be many more examples. And through all of them, corruption has become a way of righting the wrongs that have been happening to us. There will be other levels to corruption surely, things that are plainly wrong and are done in the knowledge of them being wrong. But what disturbs me is the corruption of the other kind, where people have been given to believe that what they are doing is actually the right thing to do.