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How much is too much?

The plight of a school in Hyderabad shows how greedy we have become, Manoj Kumar writes.
Hindustan Times | By Manoj Kum
UPDATED ON MAR 01, 2012 11:47 PM IST

Leo Tolstoy's short story - 'How much land does a man need?' - pushes readers to ponder over the futility of being obsessed with owning a lot of land when all that a man needs is six feet for his coffin. The story is relevant even more today since everyone seems to be busy amassing land.

Recently, one of Hyderabad's iconic schools, Vidyaranya, became the target of what seems to be an attempt to strip the school of one of its most important possessions - a giant playground. In urban India where children are growing up playing virtual football on their Playstations, Vidyaranya continues to impart holistic education that includes games and outdoor activities. This has been possible due to the benevolence of its octogenarian founder - Shanta aththa - who has managed to preserve over four acres of prime land in the heart of the city for the school.

For someone who's spent a lifetime running the school, a bunch of government officials with a piece of paper that gives them the power to excavate the playground to locate hidden archaeological treasures was probably the cruellest blow she ever suffered. As a result, children who play, learn and blossom there had to suddenly negotiate with earth movers, dust, noise and workers, all digging for gold. And all this just before their final exams were due to start.

What's preposterous is the fact that this excavation is based on a mason's claim that there is a treasure chest buried in the area. There's not an iota of scientific basis to this claim.

Have the economic reforms of the last two decades turned India into a nation of impatient, greedy and corrupt people? Is it true that people celebrate the fact that they can hoodwink the system, bribe gate keepers and fudge records to evade tax or amass disproportionate wealth?

Four big changes in the last two decades of liberalisation are deeply disturbing. First, we have become prolific in breeding scams. While the 2G scam leads the pack today, we have witnessed many others, leading to a huge loss to the exchequer.

Second, there's been an erosion of values and a dilution of intolerance towards corruption. It's high time we reformed laws so that people think twice before committing economic offences. In 2009 in Britain, the parliamentary expenses scandal resulted in the sacking of some MPs who had fudged their bills by only a few pounds. Public opprobrium often acts as a deterrent, but it can't be an alternative to a strong law.

Third, we must address greed. For this, we need to put more emphasis on providing a value-based education system to our children from early on.

Fourth, we must protect land and entitlements of small-time farmers, adivasis and Dalits, who are generally law-abiding and honest people. It is values like these which have helped the micro-finance industry grow by leaps and bounds.

The salaried middle-class pays the maximum tax to the government. Even then it is increasingly becoming a soft target for land sharks. Isn't it time we asked all citizens how much land is really enough for them?

Manoj Kumar is chief executive officer, Naandi Foundation. The views expressed by the author are personal.

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