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Introduction to The Waste Sad Time

The Waste Sad Time





Functioning Anarchy or Chaos?

Posted on 1-Feb-2006

Some time ago within the space of a few days there was a judge of Delhi High Court arrested on charges of corruption, a vice-chairman of the Delhi Development Authority, a senior administrator, suspended on charges of financial wrongdoing, and an inspector general of police arrested on charges of murder, after weeks of running away from the police like any common criminal. A number of months later, the tenure of a chief secretary of a state was cut short and after his retirement his properties raided because he was suspected of having accumulated assets beyond his legitimate sources of income. Very recently a retired judge of a High Court was arrested because he had been caught traveling on the railways with a permit the validity which had expired some years earlier.


More recently, the police caught up with an icon of middle class respectability, a former cricketer and the descendent of a former ruling prince on charges of having shot a black buck in violation of the law. The gentleman hid himself for a few days before surrendering to the police rather than facing the law straightaway either to defend himself or to squarely own up his guilt. Another icon, a matinee idol, has been under prosecution on a charge of shooting some more black buck. The same gentleman was accused, in a case of rash driving, of having run over a homeless man sleeping on a sidewalk in Mumbai. He did his best to evade the police for many days.


Newspapers widely reported the case of a gentleman importing a large number of luxury cars free of import duty under a government dispensation designed for promoting tourism in India. The cars were reported not to have been used for the declared purpose but instead sold to other icons of middle class respectability. Some of the buyers of these cars came out with explanations so implausible as to make one ask questions about the level of their intelligence. A few of the buyers were powerful enough to be able to escape the law. It is not known how this case ended.


Theft of electricity is a subject that invariably comes up in all discussions about power shortage of which there is plenty all over the country, the capital city of India not excluded. Often in genteel society the great electricity thief is pronounced to be the little shanty town dweller who taps the main supply line. Those in the know of the real situation say that more electricity is stolen in some single households in up market localities in Delhi than in dozens of dwellings in shanty towns, and that not by openly tapping the supply lines. Neither these nor another category of electricity thieves, namely industrial units, are taken much note of in the salons of enlightened citizens.


Municipal authorities in Delhi are, in implementation of a court order, demolishing ‘illegal’ constructions in the city. Some of those affected said on television screens that they had obtained perfectly genuine authorizations for whatever they built and had paid municipal taxes on their properties for years. Others said they had paid bribes to receive such authorizations. A Government of India minister said that roughly eighty per cent of Delhi’s residential buildings were in violation municipal laws. The court which had ordered the demolition was constrained one month later to order that demolitions should start from the top, that is, structures belonging to ‘important’ people in society should be the first to be touched. The media has been busy pointing at violations of building bye laws by ‘important’ people.


On the lane I live on everyone has fenced in the portion of the sidewalk facing their house, using the area for private purposes, ignoring all exhortations to end their encroachments on public land. Most other people in the neighbourhood have done likewise. They are all moneyed people; some, like me, retired government functionaries—we might be among the poorer on my lane. The managing committee of the residents’ welfare association of the area asked the city authorities some time ago to end such encroachments but quietened down when the city authorities told the managing committee that they would remove all encroachments without making any exception. The encroachments continue. There are numerous other ways in which people ignore the distinction between private and public land.


I have managed to establish the reputation of being—to borrow an expression from English knowing people in Patna—‘dry honest’ in the circle of my relatives. Some of them think me an incompetent and a pitiable failure too. One of them, a government employee and not an exemplar of probity, said to me once that it was only fools who obeyed the rules and the law. The same person had advised me in 1986 or 1987, when I held a position of middling importance in Government of India, that my children need not waste time taking driving lessons and tests. All I needed to do was to make a few telephone calls and driving licences would be delivered to me at home. He cited the examples of people who had done so.


One day, I was waiting for my turn at the starting point in my golf club. The correct dress code for the course was posted on a panel there. At the starting point, a few metres away, a lady, in complete violation of the dress code, was getting ready to tee off. Partly out of curiosity, I asked a supervisor of the course how she was allowed to violate the dress code. He said that at that club such things were common and added for good measure that, another lady, the president of the club and a very senior government official, had been playing there for three years, dressed in salwar and kamiz—the common dress of Punjabi women, the very antithesis of the prescribed dress code. It is also not unusual at that club, the membership of which comprises serving or retired military officers and senior civil servants and other moneyed people, to bring their domestic servants to do duty as caddies, again in violation of club rules. At another club I go to occasionally there are signs forbidding the blowing of car horns inside the premises. People ignore this prohibition at will. Coming out one evening after dinner with friends, at about half past ten in the evening, my attention, as indeed of many others around, was drawn by the loud blowing of the horn of their car in the parking lot by some people, presumably to call their companions. I found it irritating and wanted to go up and tell them they were breaking club rules, but was advised by my dinner companions, who knew the place better than me, to do no such thing as those people, probably drunk, would likely start an ugly brawl, even rough me up. I permitted myself to be persuaded to do nothing though I am not sure whether my friends’ concern for my well being or an attitude of general permissiveness underlay their advice. That club never tires of calling itself an elite institution.


AT THIS moment a great deal of noise and fury is being generated by a judgment of the Supreme Court of India terming unconstitutional the decision of Government of India in May 2005 to dissolve the Legislative Assembly of Bihar. The Governor of Bihar has had to resign. And, though some political parties are asking even for the resignation of the Prime Minister, this episode, from its beginning to its end, does no credit to India’s political system, opposition political parties included. The rot in India’s political class and bureaucracy is indeed very deep. It forms the subject of newspaper articles, learned disquisitions, seminars and many a drawing room conversation in middle and lower middle class homes. The subject is so popular that in the last decade the Hindi film industry made a number of quite successful films on it. I do not wish to add another piece to the already considerable mass of literature on this subject. I shall only add that despite all, erring politicians do get voted out from time to time or occasionally get punished in other ways. Even senior bureaucrats are sometimes removed from their positions, and, when political expediency demands it, are publicly humiliated. Junior government functionaries get caught and punished for their misdeeds more often. And, despite all, politicians and officials also mange to do a little bit for general welfare.

In the society of modern India, a malaise much deeper than the venality, corruption and amorality of politicians and bureaucrats is the amorality, lawlessness and ruthless pursuit—legally or illegally—of short term advantage by the affluent and lower middle class of urban India. The principal actors in all the eight brief accounts I have started this essay with belong to this class whose station is what people in rural India or poorer people in urban India aspire to and whose mores become the standard of behaviour for the less advantaged to emulate and adopt. Disregard and contempt for the law and rules, even disregard for rules of conduct in private spaces, and the invention of ever newer ways of bypassing the law and rules of conduct, of escaping penalties which breaches of the law and rules must entail, is very widespread, almost endemic in the urban middle class. The trickle down effect in the case of social standards is stronger and faster than in the case of economic growth. Some action—something more than railing against the politicians and the bureaucrats who can be no different from the society that produces them—to cure Indian society of this malaise is necessary if it is not to go down crumbling.

Three remedies suggest themselves. Of these the first and the most obvious is greater and more effective law enforcement. This is more difficult than it may seem at first sight. In a society in which law breaking and law avoidance not only carry no social stigma but are viewed with permissiveness—take the cases of child marriage, extortion of dowry, female foeticide, or, occasionally, even suttee—law enforcement cannot but be weak, because the attitudes and cultural values of enforcers of the law and their political masters cannot be different from those that prevail in the larger society. For this reason talk about more effective law enforcement becomes more anodyne than a real solution. The same citizen may call for the enforcement of the law in one instance and be engaged in subverting it in another.

The second remedy is education, not only in schools and colleges but of the mass of citizenry. This can be done only by those who manage schools, colleges or means of mass communication. All manner of religious preachers talking about renunciation of worldly desires, yoga, meditation and other means of attaining eternal bliss or release from the cycle of birth and rebirth occupy television time. There are very few to talk about the absolute need for establishing a rule based society and for engendering greater respect for the law. A limited amount of public education is done, for example, on traffic rules, or on tax compliance. A great deal more is necessary.

Often, in India, discussions of issues of ethics conclude with invocations of our spiritual leaders of a bygone age and with a call for restoration of our traditional moral values. Not unexpectedly such calls remain unheeded. There are only a limited number of righteous, godfearing followers of any religion who let the dictates of their teacher or prophet, their consciences or the Creator determine their conduct in this world of mortals. The great majority pay ritual obeisance to their God or teacher and go about the business of living, fulfilling their needs and desires in cooperation with fellow humans when possible and in conflict when required, impelled by their genes and inhibited by their culturally acquired values, seldom able to avoid the temptation to cheat God and the policeman. Over the ages, the importance of God in the lives of people has diminished—a trend which is likely to continue and strengthen. All this is not to gainsay the importance of ethics in the conduct of human affairs. We have evolved from our distant hominid ancestors as members of social groups. Principles of ethics governing our conduct in society are probably as old as our existence as a species because they are a necessity. As societies become more complex rules and laws regulating them become more important than ever before for their smooth and efficient functioning. Any campaign of education in support of the law, to be effective and persuasive, has to be anchored in some such doctrine of necessity and not in promises of a better life hereafter.

There is a third remedy which lies within the power of individuals. Individuals can decide to conduct themselves strictly according to rules and laws. In doing so they can also decide not to take shelter behind talk about impracticality of such conduct but be prepared to tell others why they do what they do. Those who are well-endowed in education and money, those who are in positions of leadership, command and authority and those who have mass followings carry a special burden of responsibility for setting examples of ethically correct behaviour. Their examples can convert at least a few others.

My characterisations of urban Indian middle class may be dismissed as too stark, sprung out of fevered imaginings of an idle, addled mind. Perhaps we can take narcissistic pleasure in describing ourselves as an example of functioning anarchy, forgetting the irony that originally coloured that observation. We can even congratulate ourselves on our ability to muddle through and thus think of ourselves as being like the British, a member of whose tribe first used that expression to describe his nation to contrast it with the peoples of the European continent with their adherence to notions of formal political and legal structures. We can decide, as in all probability we shall, to do nothing about the malaise I am talking about. For many, the malaise does not exist.

If we do nothing, there will likely be no cataclysmic event. There will be enough economic and technological progress to blind those who are willing to be blinded. But the cancer, if not cured will grow and spread. There will be more and more breakdowns with ever greater frequency. And breakdowns will come at unexpected moments, in unexpected forms. People will not disappear, for ordinary people have the ability to survive in some of the most difficult and some of the most chaotic circumstances. For the best part of the past one decade there was no formal government in Somalia. Yet ordinary Somalis went about their lives in the land they had always lived in. In mid-1989 when I last saw Kabul, the city still functioned though ten years of fighting had destroyed much of Afghanistan’s physical infrastructure. People continued living in Afghanistan even after the Taliban destroyed that society. The question therefore is not whether we shall continue to be, but the question is how.

President Abdul Kalam has given India a dream: that of bringing the country on the same level as the developed countries of the world by the year 2020. For me, the ‘developed nations’ are not only economically and technologically advanced but are also rule based societies. There are lawbreakers no doubt but their numbers are small, and law enforcement strong. Observance of the law is the norm and the habit for most people. If in India nothing is done to engender greater respect for the law, social disorder—whether manifest or quiet and corrosive—will hobble whatever economic and technological progress is made and the dream the President of India has given us will remain as distant as ever.




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