Old,forgotten values

Can we set world standards without a public ethics of our own?

Written by Yoginder K. Alagh | Published:January 19, 2009 1:07 am

The Satyam events were disconcerting,but in a real sense did not lead to any questions. The fraud was obvious and the authorities need to be congratulated for acting decisively and quickly. Details will inevitably follow. But in a larger context,in a period of liberalisation which necessitates creating standards across countries and cultures,there are many interesting issues that are brought up. This is all the more so in a country which is very insular and where global events are only seen through local visions. Thoughtful commentators like the legal luminary Madhava Menon,for example,have been making the point that environmental and international law needs to be looked at very carefully. There are many spill-over effects of our action across borders and these have to be anticipated. Discussion with a global perspective is pathetic in India. We largely go by the material dished out either by our government or by other governments,which carry obvious slants. It takes a lot of time for serious analysis of the global economy to percolate even to the narrow elite which discusses it and is affected by it. It is interesting that the literature produced accompanying the G-20 and G-8 November meetings created hardly a ripple in India. People like Larry Summers and Agel Gurria and others who contributed to that literature will determine future events affecting us,but it still went unnoticed.

Global standards are not thought of clearly enough. For example,the strictures on Wipro by the World Bank raise many issues. Wipro is a company with a first-rate record. It has also considerable credit to it in terms of corporate social responsibility and is contributing in an effective manner to the solution of some of the country’s more difficult problems,like primary education. It apparently offered World Bank experts its equity on preferential terms. It repeatedly says that it did not know that this would be regarded as a misdemeanour. In the context of a relatively closed economy,one working with an inhibited structure of the public sector and public policy,offering equity of a corporate entity to a public official in a period of rising stock prices is clearly corruption. If my memory tells me right,the Service and Conduct Rules of the government of India clearly forbid this. A public servant can be prosecuted for accepting. 

Yet,it is difficult to be clear about rules and standards elsewhere,reflecting our lack of a global perspective. It is quite clear that in some countries,like Thailand or Indonesia,government officials are permitted to invest in private enterprises. East Asian countries like Korea and Japan set very frugal social norms for businessmen; yet there were reportedly strong connections between businesses and organised syndicates. Japanese Prime Minister Fujimori,for example,came to power on a reform movement. 

My own view in these matters is that it is prudent to set the stricter of the available standards. Wipro could have avoided its problems by sticking,for example,to the code of conduct under India’s Civil Servants Rules. Institutions which work in the public domain have to be like Caesar’s wife,above suspicion. 

This may sound somewhat righteous and yet is an important principle to reiterate. There have been civil servants in this country with scruples to the point of nitpicking in terms of integrity. I remember in my first job in the Planning Commission,M. G. Pimputkar insisting that he would pay for his farewell when he retired from the ICS as member-secretary of the planning commission,because he would not accept hospitality from subordinates. One of the architects of the Green Revolution,the late B. Sivaraman,reportedly died in a public bus in Chennai,without access to medical care,which is a commentary on both his integrity and our incompetence. I rose to the top while relatively young and was probably one of the highest paid academics in India and therefore got high salaries when I went periodically to government. Still,at a time when our expenses were high,with children growing up and parents to look after,our salary kept on going down in real terms. I believe Dr Manmohan Singh at that point intervened and got the dearness allowance restored at higher levels of government. But before that,as Nitin Desai once sarcastically remarked,people think we wear Co-optex bush shirts and Kohlapuris as fashion statements,but they don’t know we can’t afford shoes.

The difficulty at the present moment is not only that morals differ between different institutional systems,but also that living according to the required ethical standards is not recognised as a value any more. The fact that the late Gulzarilal Nanda did not have enough money to look after medical expenses in his old age is regarded as quirkiness rather than a testimonial to his integrity. If you have been a minister and do not have a palatial house and good car,you are thought of as an oddity,rather than as an example.

This is wrong. All civilised societies have to set some absolute standards for acceptable behaviour. These relate to inter-personal conduct and also an individual’s responsibilities. In the final analysis,these are the standards which make nations click. Regulatory authorities and the police are only meant for outliers,who violate these standards and therefore must be punished.

The writer,a former Union minister,is chairman,Institute of Rural Management,Anand


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