September 15, 2004

Your Principles, My Food

Poverty is widespread in India, and has all kinds of effects on the country. Saying this is no great insight of course, nor am I going to start rattling off some dreary list of the obvious fallouts of poverty.

What I am going to do here is touch on one intriguing side-effect of poverty in this country: the way it touches on ethics.

I first began thinking about this when I heard about what's happening with a large low-cost housing project in Goregaon, one of Bombay's northern suburbs. In some ways, this is one of the only demonstrated large successes of what's called the "cross-subsidy" method of alleviating the housing situation in Bombay. That is, a builder agrees to build a number of smaller flats that he will sell to the poor at subsidised rates (the BJP-Sena regime in Maharashtra actually had a poll promise to give these away free). In return, the builder gets concessions to put up larger flats that he sells to the middle-class at market rates. The presumption is that the profit on the market-rate flats pays for the subsidy on the others, and then some.

In any case, this project was conceived and is managed by a set of scrupulously, almost painfully, straight and sincere people. Not once have they agreed to pay a bribe for the various Municipal clearances etc that they have to get. This is no mean feat, considering the project has 6000 flats.

But as a result of this refusal to bend, the project is vastly delayed. Hundreds of poor families first paid a deposit to be part of this scheme some 20 years ago. They are just getting, or in some cases have not yet got, their new flats.

You could argue that had bribes been paid, many homeless people would have had a flat several years ago. Hold on to that thought.

A man called Abraham George has just published an interesting book: India Untouched: The Forgotten Face of Rural Poverty. George is an entrepreneur/businessman who did well in the States and, about ten years ago, decided he'd like to give back to India. So he set out to build a school in a poor Tamil Nadu district, Shanti Bhavan, selecting its students from among the poorest families there and promising them a top-notch education. (If you don't get the book, you can read more about the school and George's other philanthropic efforts here).

As you can imagine, George faced innumerable obstacles, from corruption to bureaucratic apathy to allegations that he was converting the school kids. This was one of them.

He once received a large shipment of American wheat for the kids in Shanti Bhavan. (An entire container full, in fact). The Customs officer at the port of entry wanted a bribe, which George refused to pay "as a matter of principle." Naturally, the wheat was held up, then pronounced "unfit for human consumption." To appeal that, George would have had to send the wheat for testing elsewhere, which would have meant further delays and expensive storage/transport costs.

Eventually, George simply burned the wheat.

Looking back, he says, he is not sure he made the right decision. "On an ethical principle," he writes, "I sacrifice[d] the welfare of several hundred children and poor people and allowed the destruction of a valuable food item."

Hold on to your ethics? Or feed needy kids? Refuse to pay a bribe? Or house people who have no home?

You shouldn't have to make these choices. But in India, sometimes you do.


Anirudh Karnick said...

This is a thought provoking post. I've thought about this too though obviously not in exactly the same way. Ethics. It's a very complicated thing.

Sunita said...

Heard you speak at the AID Conference in Austin and have been following your blogs. Found this one particularly interesting as it brought forth a very sad, yet true point that a lot of us perhaps have not pondered over. AID has started a campaign called ECAAL (Eliminate Corruption at All Levels) to understand the nature of corruption, its foundation in economic and social insecurities,and our own complicity in preserving the systems we decry.

Let me know if it is ok to send a link to your "Your Principles, My Food" blog to the editors of AID news as a story for the next version.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Ani, ethics and morals are complicated. You'd think they should be black and white, but they never are.

Sunita, thanks for your note. Did we meet and chat in Austin? Forgive me if I've forgotten. What's the post-conference feeling about the Austin event?

The ECAAL campaign sounds worthwhile, can you tell me a little bit more? (email might be best, ddd AT rediff DOT co DOT in). I'll dig around on the AID site anyway.

Of course it's OK to link to my blog, circulate my story, whatever you want to do.

Viggy M said...

D'Souza provokes the grey cells yet again.

When food for children is involved, the decision is almost trivially simple - feed them first. When the payment is a bribe, and corruption is something you really want eradicated from the Indian society, there is a competing agenda (to the agenda of feeding kids or housing the desperately poor). You want to call attention to the particular incident of bribing so voices build up against this rather unfortunate practice. One voice - what will that accomplish? Just the same as one vote, isn't it?

It will take a long time before enough of a social stigma gets attached to giving or taking bribes in the Indian society. The passionate have no option but to try. As it is, taking bribes has become an entitlement among those in power. I'll sign off before I take off on entitlements. It is the main reason I never dared to come back, like Abraham George did.

Dilip D'Souza said...

My old friend Viggy, I think your mention of entitlements is spot on. Those creeps at Customs or wherever have come to see bribes as just their right, and lash out at those who would resist. As long as they can see it that way, there's going to be no social stigma. Forgive the pessimism.

Nurse Mia said...

Excellent examples of the ethical dilemmas faced by us in all in our desire to make this world a better place.

Anonymous said...

Is it poverty Dilip or is it the system of governance that encourages corruption?

These are sad stories. And you're right in talking about ethics. To be honest, sometimes I think it might be better to look upon certain bribes as some kind of additional tax. Should blog on it.