Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Unethical Indian?

The atmosphere in college is soaked in finance these days courtesy the India Finance Conference. So, the first thing that came to my mind on hearing the composition of the panel was Portfolio theory: Greater the diversification, greater the returns. Well, here goes the list of the panelists (straight from the invitation mail)

"Dr. Samuel Paul- Former Director, IIM Ahmedabad, and Founder of the Public Affairs Centre, Bangalore. Professor Paul co-edited a book titled Corruption in India: An Agenda for Action, and pioneered the use of Report Cards to enhance the accountability of public service providers in India.

Professor Dipankar Gupta-One of India’s foremost sociologists and recently retired from the Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is the author of Ethics Incorporated, and advised KPMG on setting up an Ethics practice in India.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, journalist and author with over 20 years experience in print, radio and television. He was one of the first media professionals to expose the iron ore scam in Karnataka through his path-breaking video titled Blood and Iron.

Meena Ganesh-CEO and Managing Director Pearson Education Services, which includes innovative brands like Tutor Vista and Edurite. Earlier CEO of Tesco, Co-Founder of Customer Asset , spending the earlier part of her career with Microsoft, PwC and  NIIT.

The discussions will be moderated by Professor Rishikesha T Krishnan, Professor of Corporate Strategy at IIM Bangalore."

You can do the math and figure out the correlation.

Prof Paul started the discussion espousing the need of a) Individuals who hold certain values close to their heart and b) Institutions that nurture and support these values. He pointed out the high level of tolerance for corruption in our society due to various reasons like lack of education and other social institutions which could have implemented these values thus reducing the elasticity of the morals. In essence what we need is fewer laws and better implementation.
A worse problem is the predatory nature of our political institutions. If there is scope for collusion there is lack of transparency leading to greed and corruption. We need a transformation from predatory to more accountable form of political institutions. This has already been achieved eg in property tax collection in Bengaluru which has become much more transparent after publishing the formula for calculating the due amount. Prof concluded with the remark that we need to move from a culture of cynicism to that of hope.

Paranjoy dwelled upon the nuanced nature of perception of corruption in India eg taking bribe is a bigger corruption that giving bribe. What is shocking is the scale and the brazen nature of corruption today which makes scams of yesteryears seem trivial. He said that the root of corruption is in the way elections are funded in India. He added that there is a (misplaced) perception that corruption like inflation and inequality goes hand in hand with growth and development. The problem we have is that resources of our country are up for sale and that Governments which should ideally be the custodians of these resources are the ones actively taking part in this sale. Talking of the collusion between media, Government and corporates he quoted this witty ditty from "Uncelestial City"

You cannot hope 
       to bribe or twist, 
    thank God! the 
       British journalist.
    But, seeing what 
       the man will do 
    unbribed, there's 
       no occasion to.

He concluded his talk on an optimistic note saying slowly but steadily we are moving forward from corruption towards transparency thanks to proactive judiciary, vigilant sections of the media and the civil society, so much so that we can expect our children and grand children to live in a world that is less corrupt than the one we live in.

Meena brought the corporate perspective in the discussion adding the dimensions of i) Excellence, ii) Behaviour with other people iii) Integrity that together comprise ethics. Talking of the importance of leadership in nurturing ethics she noted the opportunity in education with a focus on ethics at various levels. She explained the concept of Jugaad which has a place of pride & affection in our hearts as a mixed bag which leads to creativity and innovation at the same time providing avenues to misuse loopholes in rules thus transgressing ethical boundaries. She discussed how strictly implemented laws like ABC (Anti Bribery & Corruption) policy in UK which while perceived as being draconian by most sections of the corporate world was instrumental in structural changes leading to increased transparency. Providing a possible solution for corruption she said the first and foremost thing is that we keep our stable clean and then go on to bring robust businesses which will generate employment, thus reducing scarcity of basic resources and curbing corruption at the grass root level.

Dipankar provided the "aha moment" of the session when he explained the distinction between Morality and Ethics. Morality, he said was a private matter while ethics was a public affair out there in the open. Thus while a vegetarian may hold a "moral" high-ground, it is restricted to his personal view. Ethics on the other hand is based on rules stated upfront eg behavior in Traffic on in sports. He said that a team leader may not be the best player in the team but brings out the best from the team. Thus, ethics lead to professional excellence. Talking of his experience in setting up the ethics and corporate governance practice in KPMG he said that ethics and business were considered oxymorons for a long time. However ethics is not something you do after you make money rather it is something you do in order to make money. He explained CSR as having 3 dimensions viz. i) Consumer ii) Competence & iii) Community which together should benefit the company. Bringing democracy into the discussion he added that "the good thing about democracy is that it eventually listens". Although we currently have patron-client relationship at all levels in our society, hampering transparency and ethical behavior, with efforts for universal education and universal health we should see a growing middle class and growing empathy thus increasing the room for ethics.

PS: The title as was pointed in the Q&A session is meant to be rhetorical; not a statement on the ethics of Indians!

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