No generalisation can be made about India. State a condition and its refutation will be found at once.
Yet, I will risk the following five sets of generalisations, five in each set:
India is admired world-wide for five things, not necessarily in that order:
The Taj Mahal
Its cultural diversity
Its parliamentary democracy
Its classical arts, music, dance, architecture and handcrafting.
India is appreciated for the following five:
Its independent judiciary
Its free media
India is acknowledged for these:
Its prolific wordsmiths
Its brilliant academics
Its brave activists
Its contemporary artists and sculptors
Its technological, especially IT-related, savvy.
But, India is despaired of internationally for these five traits seen ever so often in us:
Scant respect for others’ time
Impatience with others’ views
Indiscipline in queues, on roads
Being weak to the strong, strong to the weak.
And alas, India is despised, globally, for the following:
Its stubborn filthiness
Its shocking inefficiencies
The unequal status of its women
Callousness towards human and animal suffering
The temperament that fosters galat faeda, exploitation.
Businessmen and women from the world over will reach out to India, un-drawn by the first five, un-repelled by the last, for they are in the business of making profits, not judging countries. They know India is an insatiable and undiscriminating market into which any world player can send a worm to pull it by the millions. They will reach out.
Backpackers from everywhere will continue to do the same, for they don’t mind revulsion, indeed they often seek it and wallow in it. Besides, they are on a budget and how many destinations are there that can give them a ‘trip’ to heaven and hell so cheap?
Serious academics, writers and journalists will stay engaged with a country that fascinates them for all that it has been and is.
But I am not thinking of India as a travel destination. I am
thinking of the image of India in the world, of its standing as the integrated sum of its parts, its people. And even beyond the image, of the reality of our encounter with ourselves.
I have heard a soccer jibe in another multi-cultural country: ‘Don’t give the Indian a corner, he will open a shop in it’. The jest ranks with: ‘The Indian will pocket any insult, if it comes with a little profit as well.’
Jokes are jokes, not statements. Business is business, not charity. And Indian businessmen are not to be branded as profiteers merely because they make profits, which by their profession, they have to. But profits are one thing, exploitation is another. And where that occurs, it isn’t restricted to the business community alone; far from it.
Exploitativeness is a temperament that can be seen in varied fields. In simple Hindustani, one expression catches its sense better than the word’s lexical equivalent. And it is: ‘faeda uthana’ — taking undue advantage of. We are past masters in taking undue advantage of things. Be it a professional opportunity, a system, or even an appliance, we saturate its possibilities to the very limits. Animals dependent on us are, of course, singled out for faeda uthana. A bullock cart or tonga driver will twist the miserable animal’s tail and goad it with a pointed prod at its genitals to make it run faster than its limit. He is exploitative. ‘Beasts of burden’ in India carry more than burden and I don’t know of regulations to relieve their misery. Their owners are exploiting the creatures.
But even these examples of exploitative practices are yet nothing compared to bigger games in the ‘faeda’ category. The trans-India movement of cheap labour from India’s eastern states to its western and southern for contract construction work brings to mind aerial photographs of thirsty denizens of African grasslands leaving in hundreds for less inhospitable terrain. The loss of stability, and of dignity, of health and of anchoring, especially on migrating women and infants, is astounding. It’s not as if cheap labour can’t be found, even by in situ standards of faeda. The search is for cheaper labour, un-unionised, non-bargaining, abject labour which can’t even talk the local language.
Similar is the plight of people who clean India’s public spaces of filth and faeces. This has to be the most thankless task on earth. It’s also one of the least remunerated. Be it on footpaths , streets or on railway tracks and railway stations, what we have generated is manually moved by grossly over-worked, and grossly underpaid human hands. Nobody may be, technically speaking, robbing these miserable people, but ‘sanitary workers’ are being robbed of a wage commensurate with the nature, not just the volume, of their work. They are also being robbed of a fair monetary acknowledgment of the great service they are rendering to the health and hygiene of India. And, unwittingly, we are all accomplices in the exploitation.
Mostly, we are its witnesses. I can’t recall a time in India when so many prominent people are being proceeded against for having sought illegal gain, for galat faeda. As a citizen who wants the image of his country to be clean, I hope these people are found to have been innocent, not guilty. I doubt if such good news awaits us. Their acts are rooted in a temperament that uses contrivance, improvisation, cunning and sleights of hand for over-vaulting greed. Munafa, fair return, is a temperament of business. Fair competition, working on behalf of an alert market, keeps fair returns within bounds. But insatiable greed, as has landed leading Indian businessmen and their patrons in jail, blurs those bounds.
The same greed turns violent as well. The killing of brave people who have sought accounts under the Right to Information Act is an act of terror against integrity. The country deserves to know more about these people who have died because they dared to ask, on its behalf, questions about exploitation. Only a national resolve working against that temperament of exploitation can rein in al-Faeda.
( Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor )
The views expressed by the author are personal