Pots and kettles

A customer and I had just completed a long discussion in his factory. Since it was our first meeting, he insisted that he would treat me to lunch. As we were walking towards his car, the talk turned to the building collapse in Thane in which over 70 persons died, and the reports of a nexus between builders, officials, police and politicians.

Very passionately, my customer said, “These scoundrels should be hanged! They know these buildings will collapse and kill the occupants, but all they are interested in is making money! If a person can be hanged for killing one victim, why shouldn’t these guys be hanged for killing dozens of people?”

“Who, in your opinion, is most guilty?” I asked.

Without any hesitation, my customer replied, “The builders, of course! They increase their profits by making concrete with more sand and less cement. They know it’s dangerous, but why will they bother? Their lives are not at stake. Only the people who buy their flats risk their lives. These builders are mass-murderers!”

To change the subject, I said, “Let’s not talk about them. Tell me, what kind of food are you treating me to today?”

He laughed and replied, “Sir, I am not a sophisticated person like you. I am a pure vegetarian, teetotaller and non-smoker. So, please forgive this simpleton for making you suffer an ordinary vegetarian meal without any drinks or hookah. Is a Rajasthani Thali OK for you? Or would you prefer something else?”

“Rajasthani Thali would be great! Have you never tried non-vegetarian food, alcohol or tobacco, even when you were young?” I asked.

Clearly enjoying the attention, he replied, “Never! Sir, these are our family values. We are very principled people. Apart from our simple lifestyle, we have a tradition of contributing at least 10% of our profits to charity. We are very grateful to God for his kindness, and we try to do something for society. We are not like these useless builders who only want to make money, even if it means their sub-standard construction leads to so many deaths!”

Again wanting to change the subject, I asked, “I remember you told me that you were the first person in your family to venture into the engineering industry. So, what business has your family been in before that?”

“We are in the chewing tobacco industry,” he declared, and proudly told me the name of the brand owned by his family.

This guy had been ranting about “useless builders who only want to make money”, and had labelled them as “mass-murderers”! But he had no qualms about enjoying the profits made by his family by selling carcinogenic chewing tobacco, which also leads to a large number of deaths. On the contrary, he was claiming to be virtuous on account of contributing 10% of these profits to charity!

A classic case of the pot calling the kettle black!

I wanted to ask him many questions, but I thought it would be an exercise in futility. Hence, I did not react.

Later, I wondered: Did I do the right thing by keeping quiet? Would it really have been an exercise in futility? Or did I keep quiet only to avoid antagonising my customer?

Whatever the real reason for my keeping quiet that day, I think I should have spoken up. If not anything, I would have poked his self-righteousness!

I am reminded of these words of Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”

(This post was originally published on Dec 17, 2013.)

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Do we encourage corruption and crime?

A boy, looking around 15 years old and dressed in baggy Bermuda shorts and a T shirt was about to leave the supermarket after having purchased a kilogram of rice when the billing clerk called out to him and asked him what he had in his pockets. When the boy answered, “Nothing,” the billing clerk walked up to the boy and demanded that he empty his pockets. The boy refused to do so, whereupon the billing clerk stated that he would call the police. Hearing this, the boy took out a chocolate bar from one of the pockets of his baggy Bermuda shorts and gave it to the billing clerk, who immediately put his hand into the boy’s pockets and brought out some more chocolate bars and a few small packets of almonds and cashewnuts! By this time, the Manager, a middle-aged man, had reached the spot. The billing clerk reported to him that the boy, who had purchased a kilogram of rice worth Rs. 60, had shoplifted items worth around Rs. 400!

The boy immediately protested that he was being wrongly accused by the billing clerk, saying he had bought these items at another shop. The billing clerk angrily landed a tight slap on the boy’s cheek and was about to do more, but the Manager firmly restrained him and ordered him to go back to the billing counter.

The Manager showed the boy the supermarket’s price labels on the shoplifted items, and gently told him that there was no doubt that these items had been shoplifted. The boy, who was weeping and trembling, kept saying, “I’m sorry.” The Manager put his arm around the boy’s shoulder and said, “Your parents are our regular customers. They are very nice people. Do you think they would be happy that you’ve done something like this? Normally, we take very strict action against shoplifters. Bu, since you are a young boy, and because we think this is the first time, we will not take any action against you this time. I hope you realise that you’ve done something wrong. Please don’t do this again. Go home now.” The boy thanked him repeatedly and left.

I witnessed this entire incident two days back. My immediate reaction was to appreciate the manner in which the Manager handled the situation, though I could not help wondering whether he would have handled the situation in the same way if the boy had belonged to a poor family. Would he would have encouraged, perhaps instructed his staff to beat up the boy?

Later, I wondered: what is likely to happen now?

a. The boy’s parents are likely to be ignorant about the incident. In this case,
i. The boy may be tempted to try shoplifting at other supermarkets, taking care to ensure he doesn’t lift too much each time since he would have ‘learnt the lesson’ that it was his bulging pockets that gave him away this time.
ii. The boy may not attempt shoplifting or any other dishonest acts ever again.

b. If the boy’s parents learn about the incident from the boy, it is most likely that the boy will claim that he was wrongly accused, that it was all a misunderstanding, etc.. Most probably, his parents will believe him, tell him to be careful of ‘bad people’ in future and decide that they all should not patronise the particular supermarket.

In both cases, it’s difficult to say whether the boy has learnt that honesty is the best policy, or whether he has learnt that getting caught was his mistake. He may have learnt one wrong lesson: if he’s caught and he’s guilty, he can get away by issuing a ‘sincere apology’! Perhaps, if it’s a serious crime, he could get away by ‘offering to recuse himself for 6 months’ as an act of atonement!!

I think the Manager could have handled the situation in a much better manner, particularly since he knows the boy’s parents. He should have asked the boy’s parents to come to the supermarket, given them proof that their son had shoplifted, and requested them to take corrective action to prevent recurrence of this incident, in his supermarket or in any other shop.

What do you think? Shouldn’t we take steps to prevent corruption and crime? Does our attitude of ‘forgive and forget’ allow people to get away too easily? Are we actually encouraging corruption and crime by this excessively soft approach?

(This post was originally published on Nov 30, 2013.)

Is this corruption?

An office-bearer of a local voluntary service organization sent an email to all members of that organization, informing them that a service camp was being conducted in a small town about 70 kilometers away.

After giving details of the service camp, the email ended with the words, “Those who can charge the travel expenses to their company can volunteer to take their cars.”

Is this corruption? Or is it ethically acceptable?

Does this kind of thing happen only in a few countries like India, or is it a worldwide phenomenon?

Corrupt Politicians in the land of Clean Citizens?

Every time there is a discussion on corruption, we lay the blame squarely on our politicians, bureaucrats, policemen, everyone but ourselves!

Isn’t it a mystery how we have such corrupt politicians, bureaucrats, policemen, etc. in a land of Clean Citizens?

Some years back, my General Manager and I had visited a customer at his factory to finalise their order for a few machines for his company’s expansion. After we completed the discussion, the Proprietor described a peculiar problem that was being faced on one of their existing machines, and asked me if I could suggest a solution. After getting some more information from the Factory Manager, I suggested a few adjustments to be made in the machine’s settings. 10 minutes later, the Factory Manager returned and reported that the problem appeared to have been solved. I told him to let me know if the problem recurred.

A week later, I visited the same customer to collect their Purchase Order and cheque for advance payment. When I asked about the problem on their existing machine, the Proprietor replied that the problem had not recurred. He was extremely pleased about it since they had not been able to solve this problem for a few months. He then asked me if I could suggest a consultant who could visit his factory one a week for a few hours every Saturday afternoon and advise them about operation and maintenance of all their machines. He mentioned the monthly fee that he would pay, and said that, if the person happened to be employed in any other company, he was willing to pay the fee in cash so that nothing would be on record.

While he hadn’t said so in so many words, the gentleman was obviously making me an offer to be his unofficial consultant. The profile fit me perfectly! He knew that my office closed at 1.00 pm on Saturdays. The monthly fee was generous, more than half my monthly salary at that time!

However, I acted as if I hadn’t got his message. I told him that I couldn’t think of any suitable person, but I would definitely try to suggest somebody at the earliest. At that point, as if he had got a sudden inspiration, he said, “You know something! I just realised that you are the ideal person to be my consultant!!”

I replied that, while I certainly could do justice to the assignment if I took it up, I couldn’t accept his offer since the terms of my employment explicitly forbade me from engaging in any work or business other than that of my employer.

The customer was an educated man, owning a few flourishing businesses in various industries. He was one of India’s ‘Clean Citizens’! No politician, bureaucrat or policeman was involved in this matter. His intended act of corruption was self-motivated.

Like my customer, almost all of us indulge in voluntary acts of corruption in our daily life.
We offer bribes to policemen because we don’t want to pay fines. We use official facilities (car, telephone, etc.) for personal use. We get birth certificates for our children with the Date of Birth changed to ensure earlier school admission. We jump traffic signals. … The list can go on and on. We are not victims in these acts of corruption, we are the perpetrators.

Corruption of politicians, bureaucrats, policemen, etc. is a problem that needs to be addressed. But, we ourselves are no less guilty. Politicians, bureaucrats, policemen, etc. are only the face of corruption in India. The body of this problem, and of all other problems, is we, the people of India. Along with our efforts to change politicians, bureaucrats, policemen, etc. for the better, let us try to change ourselves as well.

(This post was originally published on Aug 17, 2013.)

A common man’s letter to Arvind Kejriwal

Dear Shri Kejriwal,

Congratulations on AAP’s spectacular victory in the Delhi Assembly elections! This victory has given all common people in India the hope that they can work collectively to change things for the better.

The whole country seems to be hailing AAP as the inventor of ‘alternative politics’. Most people are either unaware or have forgotten that the AAP today closely resembles the BJP when it was founded in 1980. Then, the BJP worker was a volunteer who worked during the day to earn his/her living, and worked for the party outside office hours and on holidays. There were no leaders. Everybody was a party worker, and some were elected office-bearers. All of them were “common men/women”. People joined the BJP to work for the nation and for the party, never for personal gain. They gave the party their time, energy and money, often at the cost of their personal and family commitments, and expected nothing in return. They led simple lives. To give an example, around 50,000 delegates attended the BJP’s first annual session in Mumbai in December 1980. Delegates from outside Mumbai either stayed with their relatives or with friends, or were accommodated in tents at the session venue in Bandra, Mumbai. Nobody, not even the seniormost office-bearers like Mr. A. B. Vajpayee and Mr. L. K. Advani, stayed at posh hotels. Sounds familiar?

However, by 2004, the BJP had become a clone of the post-Independence Congress. Whatever faults can be found with the Congress can also be found with the BJP: corruption, crony capitalism, VIP culture, High Command culture, dynastic politics, etc., etc.

I am sure the Congress in 1947 was also like today’s AAP.

The Congress and the BJP transformed the way they did because, to quote Lord Acton, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I would go a step further and state that a political party and its members start becoming corrupt when power becomes approachable.

I sincerely appeal to you to remain constantly aware that whatever happened to the Congress and to the BJP can very easily happen to the AAP. One of your immediate and topmost priorities should be to create a set of mechanisms to ensure that power does not corrupt the AAP.

I am sure you, Dr. Yogendra Yadav, Prof. Ajit Jha, Prof. Anand Kumar and other political analysts in the AAP are eminently capable of identifying all risk factors, and that organisational experts in the AAP would be able to create mechanisms to prevent these risk factors from entering the party.

However, I would like to submit the following points for your kind consideration:

1. I hope you understand that corruption starts from the top. If the top leadership, or people close to the top leadership, is perceived to have zero tolerance to corruption, crony capitalism, ostentatiousness, etc., the party and its workers are less likely to become corrupt. However, if the top leadership is perceived to selectively turn a blind eye to corruption, the rank and file of the party gets a signal that corruption is acceptable, provided it is within limits.
For example, no free rides on private jets or helicopters under any circumstances. Also, every substantial donation must be proactively and stringently vetted. Sorry to say this, but when somebody donates Rs. 50 lakhs to you, please ask that person why (s)he is making such a huge donation and ensure that AAP is not compromising itself in any way by accepting such a huge donation. The fact that a donation of Rs. 50 lakhs was made by cheque and was accompanied by a PAN Card photocopy is not enough. AAP must make sure that the donor has earned the money by legal and ethical means, and that the donation is being made without any strings attached.

2a. Be extremely selective while admitting members. The current process allows anybody to join the AAP. Please have a screening process. I would suggest that membership be offered only to those who are recommended by existing office-bearers and/or active members. This may slow down the membership drive, but it will reduce the chances of opportunists joining the party.
2b. Set higher standards for election candidates than for members. ‘Winnability’ is extremely important, but it is less important than ‘cleanliness’.
2c. Set even higher standards for office-bearers and for ministers.
2d. Be extremely selective about alliances, electoral understandings, endorsements, outside support, etc.

3a. Be aggressive in your efforts, but be patient about results. There is a very heavy price to be paid for shortcuts. Be prepared for the fact that your noble goals may not be fully achieved during your lifetime. Please develop a second line of leadership, and create a process of continuous leadership development.
3b. Please develop the organisation in a state before you contest elections there. Elections can be won in Arvind Kejriwal’s name, but Arvind Kejriwal will not be part of the state’s government.

4. Avoid populism. Freebies win elections, but they also make the Aam Aadmi lazy. Remember the words of Rosalynn Carter: “A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.”

I apologise for having taken up much of your valuable time, and I thank you for having patiently read this communication.

Your admirer and well-wisher,

Proactive Indian

(Sent by email from proactiveindian@rediffmail.com to contact@aamaadmiparty.org)