According to a report by EY, a global advisory on tax and transaction services, the perception of bribery and corruption being endemic to India has gone down. That’s reason to cheer. However, 70 per cent of India Inc still feels that some form of unethical conduct is justified to meet financial targets (The Indian Express, April 21). Of those surveyed, 44 per cent considered gifts, services and cash payments as acceptable, even necessary, to get work done.
There is a deep-rooted conviction among upwardly mobile Indians that successive governments have done wretchedly little to improve living conditions and owe us much more. This makes it pretty easy to rationalise petty wrongdoing. With a little imagination, you can twist the moral high ground to suit a particular situation, guilt free.
Consider the new RBI regulation that furnishing a PAN card is mandatory for purchases of Rs 2 lakh and above. India’s jewellers have been fighting hard for survival since. Bullion and gems buyers are badly hit, craftsmen are out of work. It’s an economically complex issue. Sales at luxury stores like Louis Vuitton and Dior are down by more than 40 per cent.
The rich have decided to do their shopping abroad, free of import duties and away from the taxman’s prying eyes. The stop-gap arrangement to deal with this massive inconvenience is that invoices are being cut for Rs 1,99,000. This most certainly qualifies under unethical conduct for both sellers and buyers since the taxes could have been directed towards education, healthcare and infrastructure.
It’s not just greed that persuades some to rig the system and hide their wealth via ingenuous webs of shell companies. They may genuinely not see it as unjust for they may be operating within loopholes — but perhaps not the spirit, of the law. When billionaires can flee after scamming public sector banks while debt-ridden farmers are committing suicide, whatever we think we know about fair play is questionable indeed.
There are a statistically small but quantitatively huge number of people in India who have more money than they know what to do with. In these straitened times what happens to it, affects us all. For instance, take Amitabh Bachchan, whose name appeared in the Panama papers recently. In 2015, Forbes listed his earnings at $33.5 million.
It seems pointless to even talk about mere money and Mr Bachchan in the same sentence. He’s won every accolade there is and is arguably the greatest actor this country has ever seen. Such is Mr Bachchan’s influence that a single tweet chiding a beloved commentator on being too critical of the cricket team has almost finished his career.
Would it really matter whether he had earned 33 million, or 23 million or 12 million? After a point, the money becomes meaningless paper since it’s impossible to spend it anyway. At that level, the notional value of net worth and a hefty bank balance is far lower in importance to stature and reputation. At the end of a mostly illustrious, long innings it makes more sense to exit as an example of integrity and best practices.
However, we live in morally ambivalent times. The cliffhanger-addled plot of Breaking Bad comes to mind which is often described as a modern morality play. Over qualified, poor, chemistry teacher suffering from lung cancer starts selling crystal meth to provide for his handicapped son — fully, and completely justifiable. When the cancer goes into remission he finds he can’t go back to high school teaching and becomes a ruthless drug lord. It’s true, our value systems are based on our options.
And it comes full circle to the Shakespeare quote, still relevant after more than 400 years — “There is no right or wrong. Only thinking makes it so”.