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Changing Values

Address to the Rotary Club of Bombay January 4, 1983.

 

shall concentrate on this occasion on only a narrow spectrum of what could be a very wide subject of discussion indeed, namely:

 

Moral values which influence our personal and family life; ethical values which affect our active public life as businessmen, professional men or public servants; political values, which even for those who take no part in politics have a strong impact on the lives of everyone.

 

When we talk of changing values we are sometimes inclined to think only of changes for the worse. That is wrong, for these have indeed been within our lifetime significant changes for the better, for instance, in regard to:

 

The growing acceptance by industry and business of their social responsibilities to the underprivileged sections of society and to the environment.

The world-wide recognition since the Second World War, except perhaps by the Soviet Empire, of the right of all nations to be free, which has led to the dramatic disappearance of the territorial conquests and colonialism which dominated large parts of the world since the days of the Roman Empire.

The principle of democratic freedoms within nations, a goal still far from universal acceptance although well established over 2,000 years ago in Athens.

The widening recognition of the rights of labour, grossly exploited for centuries.

 

I need not elaborate further on changes for the better, for it is the changes for the worse about which we worry and to which I shall now restrict my remarks. To start with, I suggest that, by and large, it is not the values themselves that have changed, but only the importance we attach to them.

For instance, while the values of family life are still widely recognised and the rites attached to marriage, childbirth and the like continue to be fully followed by the various world communities, rich or poor, they are increasingly disregarded in practice, as shown by the large and growing number of divorces, separations, and children born out of wedlock, all of which are now recognised and accepted as part of modern life in Western societies, and, gradually, even in our own country where orthodoxy still largely prevails.

Equally striking is the decline in the importance attached by youth of both sexes in most countries to religious tenets and to norms of behaviour inspired by religion, which has led to the present permissiveness, moral delinquency and the growing use of drugs in so many countries.

Similarly in own business or professional lives, while integrity, respect for the law, and fair dealings continue to be praised and propagated, resort to tax evasion, black money operations, illegal practices and corruption are becoming a normal part of Indian life, their degree depending only on the strictness of law enforcement, on the levels of taxation, the magnitude of the gains that can be won from dishonest actions, and on the severity of the punishment when caught.

It is perhaps in the field of politics that the greatest downgrading of accepted values has taken place in our country. The selfless dedication, the sacrifices, including that of personal freedom, which characterised the glorious era of our struggle for freedom, have been replaced by a frenzied scramble for power, faithlessness towards one's own Party, flagrant collection and use of illegally acquired money, and corruption in all services, other than in the Defence Services, at least up to now.

 

Causes of Decline

 

While, by and large, people continue to recognise as desirable, and pay lip service to, the old moral values and social virtues instilled in them over the millennia by parents, teachers and religious leaders, they seem to find it increasingly difficult to live up to them in their personal or professional lives.

What are the principal causes of such a decline in values and what can be done to reverse the trend?

I believe that the decline in the standards of character, and the self-indulgent norms of behaviour so evident in the world and this present era, have been mainly due to the following factors, amongst many.

First, the two World Wars – the violence and hatred to which they accustomed two whole generations, the dispersal and impoverishment of millions of families and their destructive impact on the minds of the young who grew up in an environment of chaos, violence and cynicism.

Second, the phenomenal progress of science, which has destroyed in the West much of the credibility of the religious mystique which deeply influenced social values and disciplined behaviour in earlier times.

Third, the striking growth in advanced societies of affluence and economic security which became the prime engines of the consumerism and self-indulgence so prevalent today in rich societies.

Fourth, in the industrial field, the growth and dominance of union power, which though desirable and long overdue, is often abused and misused and has led to indiscipline. The abuse of union power demonstrates a selfish disregard of the hardships to the consumer, the general public and the employees themselves caused by irresponsible union action.

Fifth, the creation of the welfare state in most countries of the West, which ensured to the new generation standards of living and economic security, which in the past could be won only by a lifetime of hard work and saving. Welfare state benefits have, in fact, grown to such an extent that their cost exceeds the capacity of many countries to pay for them without endangering their financial health, or requires such savagely high levels of taxation as severely to punish honest payment and handsomely reward evasion. For example, taxation is so high in Sweden that skilled workers pay up to 45% income tax and have found they can earn more by going on the dole and resorting to untaxed moonlighting jobs on the side. Even in England, where standards of personal and business integrity were always recognised as being exceptionally high, tax evasion became rampant for some years after the Second World War when taxes were excessively high – a lesson we have still to learn in our country.

 

Unethical Self-Enrichment

 

In our country, where religious orthodoxy and deeply ingrained social customs and beliefs continue to dominate much of our private life, it is in the monetary sector that the decline in ethical values has been most marked. One reason is that opportunities for illegal gain through corruption, tax evasion and other anti-social means of gaining or saving money are virtually built into the economic system thrust upon the country by a misconceived interpretation of socialism. Let me explain.

Under our political and parliamentary system, election to Parliament or State Legislatures provides irresistible attractions to large segments of our educated and semi-educated people, but for a candidate to be elected today involves the expenditure of an enormous amount of money, running into lakhs of rupees, which he or his Party can only collect illegally and in black money.

The absurdly low salaries paid to the public servants combined with the licence and permit the Raj inflicted on our private sector are themselves an obvious source of corruption. It is an unbelievable but true fact that senior gazetted officers of the Government, whether in civil administration or in public sector enterprises, are paid the same or lower emoluments than prevailed a hundred years ago, when the rupee was worth some twenty-five times more than today, and where there was no income tax. While every other country has over the years raised the emoluments of their officials to cope with inflation and the needs of rising standards of living, our Government and public sector employees in India have in effect suffered repeated cuts in their purchasing power and now earn hardly enough to maintain the barest minimum standards of decent living, let alone to provide for their children's education or their own retirement.

Most of these elements in our present economic environment, which encourage tax evasion and other malpractices did not exist fifty years ago when I was at the beginning of my career. Tax evasion was minimal because taxation was low and so was corruption because there were no approvals, permits or licenses to be sought and, therefore, nobody to corrupt.

 

Laws and Behaviour

 

It could thus be seen that much of the decline in values in our country, at least in the economic field, has been caused by policies and laws which, apart from being ill-conceived and counter productive per se, are also breeders of the evils that now beset us. This, of course, does not mean that wrongdoing is less wrong because of temptations and pressures, however intolerable. There are in fact many, at all levels, in business and in the government who adhere to the ethical standards of their forefathers despite the severe sacrifices and economic loss they suffer.

The fact remains, however, that under economic, political and other pressures the general ethical standards in our country have been falling rapidly in recent years and tax evasion, giving and taking bribes, the widespread use of black money and other anti-social devices is corrupting the whole fabric of our society Unless we find a way, and soon, to clear the Augean stables in which we wallow today there will one day be such a public outrage as to lead to the kind of chaos and revolutionary action as has overwhelmed so many other countries and, in the process, snuffed out individual freedom and democracy.

I feel quite dismayed at the number of the more fortunate people in our country who seem oblivious of the seriousness of the situation and who, despite the threat to their own good fortune and survival, continue not only to indulge in unethical self-enrichment but also flaunt their illegal gains by ostentatious living and conspicuous spending.

That the threat of a social upheaval in our country is neither an imaginary or distant one can be seen from the rapidly growing crime and violence in all parts of the country as reported daily in the press. Not only is life in our cities and the use of our public roads constantly disrupted by organised protests and 'morchas', but these are increasingly accompanied by arson, looting and destruction of public property at the hands of 'goondas' and other anti-social elements to which the poor and the unemployed instinctively gravitate.

 

To Enthrone Decent Standards

 

Having tried to analyse the causes of the decline in values I shall be expected, I fear, before closing my remarks, to suggest means to reverse this dangerous trend and stop our march towards disaster.

The main action must obviously come from the Government, Parliament and the Legislatures at the Centre and in the States, because they hold the levers of power to enact laws and regulations and to enforce them. The following are some of the steps I consider essential for eradicating corruption and restoring decent standards of behaviour in our country:

 

The electoral system must be changed so as to enable political candidates to get elected without the help of large tax evaded and illegally collected funds;

The political system we have adopted should be so changed as to ensure political stability for a reasonable period after election by removing the temptations and the opportunities to defeat or disrupt governments, such as the defections and repeated floor-crossings that are freely used today;

Tax laws should be strictly enforced, and so should punishment for their breach;

Public servants should be paid emoluments and retirement benefits on which they can maintain standards of living consistent with their status, responsibilities and family needs;

The tax system should be changed so as to allow investors to retain a reasonable part of their income and wealth, and corporations to replace and modernise their plants;

The oppressive machinery of economic controls should be largely dismantled and economic policies should be so reoriented as to encourage, instead of discouraging, enterprise and risk taking, and should impose restrictions or disincentives on growth and enterprise only when clearly necessary to prevent abuses or the wastage of scarce resources.

 

So much for government and official action. What about non-official and individual action?

All of us, in whatever field of economic activity we may be engaged in, can help to clean up the mess we are in. Apart from exercising personal self-discipline and adhering to ethical norms in our own professional activities, we all have a part to play as individuals, or as members of Chambers, Clubs and other voluntary organisations in building up an alert and vocal public opinion which will fight for better laws, regulations and practices and their enforcement aimed at restoring economic and political values in our country. The press, which fortunately is totally free in India, has a particularly important role to play in exposing corruption, in recognising and praising honesty, and in agitating for and supporting sound policies and their honest execution. This is a prime function the Indian press does not adequately fulfil today.

College education should include courses in civics, aimed at providing students with an understanding of the working of modern democratic societies and of the civic responsibilities and duties involved.

Citizens should vote only for candidates pledged to maintaining high standards of political and public life.

Let us all play our part, however small, in the task of restoring the high ethical and moral values for which our people were renowned in the past. India still enjoys an enormously high international reputation as a great cultural and spiritual force in a troubled world. It would be tragic indeed if that reputation and that leadership were dimmed, or even lost through our own failure to maintain the high traditions and standards of our forefathers.

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