When victims of an unfair system become perpetrators of corruption

I am re-posting, with a few changes, Not my problem?, which was my first blog post, originally posted on June 15, 2013. The incident described took place a couple of decades back.

My neighbours had 2 children: a 12-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son. All the neighbours observed that only the son was regularly treated to goodies like chocolates and ice-creams by his parents. The daughter never got such goodies. This was blatant discrimination, but none of the neighbours was close enough to the parents to raise the subject with them.

I was puzzled by the fact that the daughter, who was only 12 years old, never seemed to be perturbed about being denied the goodies that her brother enjoyed. The mystery was solved when I learnt that, whenever she was sent to buy provisions from the neighbourhood grocer, he ‘over-invoiced’ (for those who don’t know, this means he prepared a bill for a higher amount) and passed on the over-invoiced amount to her. She would use these amounts to buy goodies without her parents’ knowledge.

An underprivileged person had decided not to accept the unfairness of the system. She used ‘unfair means’ to compensate for the system’s unfairness, but she probably had no option. It was sad that her own parents had unwittingly led her to dishonesty.

There are many persons who do not have access to all or some of the basic necessities of life only because they happen to have been born in an underprivileged family. Wouldn’t such persons want to acquire those basic necessities? If they cannot acquire those basic necessities by fair means, wouldn’t they be tempted (perhaps compelled) to resort to ‘unfair

A person who has successfully achieved something by ‘unfair means’ once would be tempted to do it again, leading to some more such episodes, ultimately resulting in corruption becoming a habit.

How do privileged people like us (yes, we are privileged people!) react when we come across persons who do not have access to all or some of the basic necessities of life only because they happen to have been born in an underprivileged family? Do we try to do something about it, or are we indifferent since we are not directly affected?

We may not be affected by the suffering of today’s underprivileged person. But we certainly could be affected by the corruption or any other crime that today’s underprivileged person is pushed into. If, by helping an underprivileged person, we prevent that person from being pushed into corruption or crime, we are not just helping that person; we are helping ourselves and society at large.

Others should be ethical. ‘Leaders’ will be ‘practical’.

Some years back, I worked with a company that was sales and service agent of a European manufacturer of machines used to produce high-precision parts. One day, the manufacturer’s Sales Manager and I visited the factory of one of India’s most reputed manufacturers of high-precision parts to finalise an order for a machine.

The machine to be ordered would be the first machine to be purchased by this customer from this machine manufacturer. My company had introduced this manufacturer’s machines to this customer about 6 months earlier, and had provided a lot of technical and commercial information to this customer prior to this visit.

We finalised the price and terms of the order in a meeting with the customer’s GM – Manufacturing, GM – Engineering and GM – Materials that lasted about 2 hours. The GM – Materials told us that the Purchase Order would be released after obtaining the approval of the company’s Board of Directors. He then invited the manufacturer’s Sales Manager and me to meet their Chairman.

As we were seated outside the Chairman’s office, the Chairman’s secretary informed me that their Maintenance Manager wanted to meet me immediately in his office to discuss an urgent service matter pertaining to another machine supplied to them through my company earlier that year. I proceeded to the Maintenance Manager’s office, had a discussion for about 10 minutes, and returned to the Chairman’s office. By that time, the manufacturer’s Sales Manager and the customer’s GM – Materials had completed their meeting with the Chairman.

As we drove back to my office, the manufacturer’s Sales Manager informed me that the Chairman had told him that they wanted to buy the machine directly from the manufacturer without involving my company (the sales and service agent) and wanted the manufacturer to reduce the price by the commission payable to my company. The manufacturer’s Sales Manager had replied that he would discuss the matter with his management and would revert to the Chairman the next week. The Chairman told the manufacturer’s Sales Manager that this matter should not be revealed to my company. He also added that, if the machine manufacturer did not agree to supply the machine directly to the customer without involving my company (the sales and service agent), they would not buy the machine.

I was shocked! The Chairman was a highly respected businessman, an office-bearer in various national business associations, and had delivered a number of powerful speeches on the importance of product quality and business ethics!

The manufacturer’s Sales Manager told me that he did not want to lose this order. However, he assured me that, in accordance with the agency contract between our companies, his company would protect my company’s interests. 50% of the usual commission was sales commission, while 50% was service commission. Thus, if we booked an order from a company in India for a machine to be installed in another country, we would be paid sales commission, while the sales and service agent in the other country would be paid the service commission. He proposed that, on this order, and on all subsequent orders from this customer, his company would pay my company the sales commission. He would not disclose this arrangement to the customer, but would tell the customer that no commission was paid to my company. His company would proceed with this arrangement only if my company agreed to it. If we did not agree to it, he would inform the Chairman that they could not supply the machine directly to them without involving my company. He was willing to lose this customer’s order, but he was not willing to dishonour the terms of the agreement between our companies.

My company’s management agreed to the manufacturer’s Sales Manager’s proposal.

The European machine manufacturer finalised the order with this customer a week later.

The customer’s GM – Materials informed us that their Board of Directors had not approved the purchase of the machine.

The machine was supplied to the customer two months later. After they received the full payment from the customer, the manufacturer paid the sales commission to my company. The machine was installed and maintained by the customer’s Maintenance Department.

Over the next 3 years, this customer bought 4 more machines from this machine manufacturer. My company was paid the sales commission on all these 4 machines.

The customer’s Chairman continues to occupy important positions in various national business associations, and continues to deliver powerful speeches on the importance of product quality and business ethics!

Obviously, he believes in preaching business ethics, but not in practising! I wonder whether his commitment to product quality is as hollow as his commitment to business ethics!!

This is common among many ‘leaders’ in India. They pontificate about ethics, but they believe that it is not necessary for them to walk their own talk!!

Personal Integrity and Trust

In his Guest Post, The Trust Factor, Sikandar Sardesai had concluded, “If we are to get rid of the “Scam India” image, that’s where we need to start – with personal integrity and trust.”

I am re-posting, with a few changes, Can we eradicate corruption? Yes We Can!, which I had originally posted on Sep 12, 2013. This is a true story of one Indian organisation that successfully introduced a culture of personal integrity and trust.

In many companies, employees who undertake outstation travel for work are reimbursed conveyance and travelling expenses in a manner that enables them to claim more than they actually spend. Thus, the employees get ‘tax-free income’. In fact, this ‘tax-free income’ is taken into account while negotiating salary packages, particularly in case of sales and service personnel.

This system is so widespread that most people do not even consider it unethical. In fact, about 3 years back, there were reports that a prominent anti-corruption crusader had claimed inflated travel expenses from some organisations for attending programmes conducted by them. In some cases, Business Class fare was claimed when actually flying Economy. In some other cases, full fare was claimed even though discounted fare tickets had been booked. This was not denied, but it was explained that the ‘savings’ were used not by the individual, but for the benefit of the crusader’s NGO. I personally believe the explanation given by this person, but can you blame people if they say this is just a ‘story’?

A few years back, I was part of the senior management of a start-up. We had decided that we would conduct all aspects of the business in an ethical manner. Among other things, this meant the company’s employees would not get ‘tax-free income’ from conveyance and travelling expenses. Obviously, we offered compensation packages that were higher than the rest of the industry to make up for the loss of this ‘tax-free income’.

This had a very positive effect on all employees. Since the management was totally transparent in all other matters as well, the transparency was reciprocated by the employees. How transparent, one may ask?

PS, our Service Manager had to undergo 2 weeks’ training at a manufacturer’s factory in Taiwan. We had booked a room for him in the hotel where all visitors to that factory usually stayed. On the first day of his training, PS informed me that the manufacturer’s Sales Manager, a bachelor living alone in a 2-bedroom apartment, had invited PS to stay with him since he had a spare bedroom. PS was keen to accept since this would save our company the hotel expenses for the remaining 12 days, but he wanted to know if I had any objection to such an arrangement. After ascertaining from him that this arrangement had been initiated by his host, and that the spare bedroom was properly furnished, I replied that I had no objection. I also made it very clear to him that, while I fully appreciated his desire to reduce our company’s expenses, I would be extremely upset if he compromised on his food expenses during his visit.

There was no need for PS to do what he had done. He personally did not gain one paisa. Why did he do it? Because of organisation culture!

What is the ‘culture’ of the ‘organisation’ called India? What can be the ‘culture’ of a country where people think that most of their ‘leaders’ are corrupt?

Can we change this ‘culture’? I believe we can. If many, many of us believe we can, and if we work hard and work persistently, we can surely make it happen! What was achieved in one Indian organisation can be achieved in the entire country. Yes We Can!

Helping patients survive heart attacks and other medical emergencies

Please spend a few minutes to view the video

In a case shown in the video, a patient in India, who had suffered a heart attack, died because the ambulance reached him very late.

The ambulance reached late because:
1. A private vehicle was parked in the hospital in such a manner that the ambulance was blocked.
2. On the road from the hospital to the patient, many drivers did not give way to the ambulance.

The video asks a pertinent question: “Who is responsible for his death? The law, the police or us?”

The video also shows how vehicle drivers in an unidentified foreign country give ‘Right of way’ to ambulances.

In the video, the driver of the ambulance in India says that, if people in India give ‘Right of way’ to ambulances, many more patients suffering from a heart attack or a life threatening injury can be saved. He says that many people in India do not give ‘Right of way’ to ambulances because they don’t know the value of somebody else’s life. He adds that these people will realize the value of life only when they or their dear ones are the dying patient in the ambulance.

The video states that we must change ourselves. Whenever a person driving a vehicle hears the siren of an ambulance or any other emergency vehicle, (s)he should give ‘Right of way’ to the ambulance or emergency vehicle by moving the vehicle to the left and bringing it to a complete stop.

I have myself seen how ambulances get held up in traffic because other vehicles do not give them ‘Right of way’. However, I do not completely agree with the view, expressed by the ambulance driver, that this is only because people in India don’t know the value of somebody else’s life. I believe that:

1. In general, in India, human life is not given the importance it deserves. Most people realize the value of human life only after they or one of their dear ones face a life-threatening situation.

2. People do not realize that the chance of survival of a person suffering a heart attack or a life-threatening injury reduces drastically by the minute, if not by the second.

3. Most vehicle drivers in India do not know exactly how they should respond when they hear the siren of an ambulance or any other emergency vehicle.

4. Often, in dense traffic during peak hours in big cities, the siren of an ambulance is not loud enough. It is heard only when the ambulance is only a few vehicles behind. This gives vehicle drivers less time to react.

To ensure that ambulances reach patients in the shortest possible time, I suggest:

a. Each one of us must give every human life the importance it deserves. The government and the media have an important role here. Normally, an accident or event that results in a few dozen deaths is treated as a tragedy. Henceforth, even if only one life is lost in an accident or event, it should be treated as a tragedy.

b. People should be made aware of the extreme importance of an ambulance reaching a person suffering a heart attack or a life-threatening injury in time.

c. It should be mandatory for hospitals to have proper parking space with easy access for all ambulances. Other vehicles should not be allowed to be parked in any manner that blocks the ambulance.

d. Vehicle drivers should be instructed how to give ‘Right of way’ to an ambulance or any other emergency vehicle as soon as the siren is heard.

e. Ambulances should have loud sirens that are easily audible above the noise of dense traffic during peak hours.

Do you have any other suggestions?

The Trust Factor

Guest post by Sikandar Sardesai, an experienced editor and teacher, currently engaged in spiritual care of the elderly.

Twentyfive years ago, I travelled abroad from India for the first time. After a chance meeting with the Executive Director of a news agency in Hongkong, I’d been invited there to work as an Editor. The offer was verbal. I had no written contract. Also, I’d been told I didn’t need a visa for Hongkong; that I would get it on arrival at the airport. Hongkong then was still a British territory.

I approached the immigration official at the Hongkong airport with quite a bit of trepidation. Would I be allowed to enter Hongkong? Would I be allowed to work in Hongkong? I soon discovered that my fears were unfounded. The British immigration official listened to my reasons for visiting Hongkong (employment at a news agency) and stamped my passport with an entry visa.

In the weeks that followed, I filled in the requisite forms, had them countersigned by my employer, and without further ado I was able to get a Hongkong identity card that allowed me to reside and work in the territory. How often did I have to go to Immigration Department? Just once.

I marvelled at the trust I was accorded. I felt good about myself and my new temporary home. I was happy to live and work in Hongkong.

Fast forward a few years and I was back in India. While in Hongkong, I had used some of my earnings to buy India Development Bonds — India was entering a new phase of growth with Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister. I saw it as the patriotic thing to do. However, back in India, when the time came to redeem the bonds, I was in for a rude shock.

It was my money after all, I thought. There shouldn’t be any problem cashing the bonds. I had forgotten that I was not in Hongkong any more. Bank officials and others I approached to redeem the bonds treated me with suspicion and indifference. They expected me to “pay” them first. I had to jump through any number of hoops before I got my money back. It was an experience of what Prime Minister Modi today calls “Scam India”.

On reflection, what distinguished the two experiences was the “trust” factor. In one instance, I was trusted. I was accepted for who I said I was. It reinforced my sense of integrity. In the other, the basic assumption seemed to be that I was “untrustworthy” and needed to be treated accordingly.

Do we, Indians, I ask myself, assume that we are not trustworthy? Is that the basis of our dealings with each other — at least, our financial and business dealings? Do we assume that we lack personal integrity?

My experience has been that trust begets trust. It’s noblesse oblige.

If we are to get rid of the “Scam India” image, that’s where we need to start – with personal integrity and trust.