Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The difficulty of being good

The excellent South Asia Center at the Henry M.Jackson School of International studies here at the University of Washington has an annual Exchange program, where a distinguished public figure from India would spend an entire quarter in campus as Visiting Scholar, co-teaching a course, and giving some lectures. This year’s visiting scholar was the affable Gurucharan Das, man of many talents, author and superb columnist. He gave his keynote lecture last week, and I tooted down to witness the proceedings, and left after having listened to an excellent lecture.

Smiling, unassuming, poised and articulate, Gurucharan Das spoke on a rather philosophical note, titling his lecture “The difficulty of being good”. He drew on his own rich background in philosophy (after all, he majored in Philosophy at Harvard, and along with Bruce Lee, is the only other person I know who succeeded in his chosen non-philosophical profession with a degree in philosophy!). The lecture discussed governance failure and corporate social responsibility, using the Mahabharata as backdrop, to draw analogies from, and explore sensitivity to Dharma.

“What is the point of doing good, if there are no rewards?” was a question asked to Gurucharan by a social worker somewhere in India. From this question, he takes us to the forest, where Pandavas are in exile, and Draupadi sees that all those who compromise with Dharma prosper, while they (and Yudishtra in particular, who never waives from the path of Dharma) suffer. What does Dharma allow? Did Dharma allow Yudishtra to give Draupadi away after he gave himself away in the game of dice?

We came back to modern India. The economy is growing, the population growth rate has dropped substantially, and there is a steady (though slow) decline in poverty. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s all happening in spite of terrible governance. As examples, we see huge teacher absenteeism in government schools, negligent government doctors, police not functioning, and businesses not transparent. Can behavior based on Dharma lead to economic harmony? Or, as Draupadi declared, “Power is all that matters.”

Coming back to the absent teachers (the specific example constantly explored), there is an over 25% absentee rate in India, and half of those present do not teach. So, 2/3 of ALL government schoolteachers don’t do anything. Even in neighboring Bangladesh, there is only a 14% absentee rate. This abysmal negligence results in very low educational standards and literacy rates, and the poor are forced to enroll their children in more expensive private schools. What’s funny is that government school teachers are quite highly paid (starting salary of Rs. 8500, with perks), while private school teachers usually earn from Rs 2000-5000 (having worked with many of those, I’m more comfortable with these numbers), yet these private teachers deliver higher performance standards (though they may not be spectacular), because they are accountable. In a few states, there were efforts to confront this problem. For example, in MP, Digvijay Singh tried to make teachers more accountable, by making them answerable to the panchayat or local parent associations (who could deduct their salary if they were absent). Guess what, teachers are all-powerful during elections (they are held in rural school classrooms, with teachers supervising). According to Digvijay Singh, his move (extremely unpopular with teachers) resulted in the powerful teachers union working against him, and influencing elections (all held in their classrooms).

Gurucharan Das went on to describe how, in the various education reform meetings (filled with politicians and bureaucrats) there is extensive discussion on resources or targets. But there has never been a discussion on teachers. Now, India spends nearly 4% of its GDP on education. This puts us right in the middle bracket of spending for education. But our performance remains at the bottom of the barrel.

Back to the Mahabharata, during the game of dice, Vidura, who also constantly upheld Dharma, pleads with the blind king. He says, “To save a family, sacrifice an individual. To save a village, sacrifice a family, and to save a country, sacrifice a village”. His words are not heeded, and he walks out of the assembly in rage. Vidura looks at Dharma using a simple cost vs. benefits analysis, and it sums up the greater good. But to Yudishtra, this is unacceptable. He upholds Dharma (as he tells Draupadi) because he must, and because Adharma leads to damnation, and because he sees Dharma as a ship. If people are not good, social order will collapse, and the rules for cooperation will no longer exist.

Back to corporate India, and Dhirubhai Ambani’s story. On one side, it was the glorious rags to riches story. On the other, it is a tale of deceit and manipulation, and the license raj. It has undoubtedly benefited millions of people (almost 8% of India’s taxes are collected from Reliance industries). Yet laws were broken with impunity. In Yudishtra’s words, ends cannot justify means. This brought Das to the topic of corporate social responsibility, and how corporations had excellent internal governance standards and codes, but little mattered to them when dealing with the greater economy.

So with teachers or with corporations, the problem is the same. Can a sense of duty be given to any of these? Plato and Aristotle believed that virtue could be taught. Reform of schools or corporations or greater government is all our work.

While concluding Gurucharan Das mused again, “What is the point of it all, the point of being good? Being good will result in greater rewards by themselves.”


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