Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The difficulty of being good

The excellent South Asia Center at the Henry M.Jackson School of International studies here at the University of Washington has an annual Exchange program, where a distinguished public figure from India would spend an entire quarter in campus as Visiting Scholar, co-teaching a course, and giving some lectures. This year’s visiting scholar was the affable Gurucharan Das, man of many talents, author and superb columnist. He gave his keynote lecture last week, and I tooted down to witness the proceedings, and left after having listened to an excellent lecture.

Smiling, unassuming, poised and articulate, Gurucharan Das spoke on a rather philosophical note, titling his lecture “The difficulty of being good”. He drew on his own rich background in philosophy (after all, he majored in Philosophy at Harvard, and along with Bruce Lee, is the only other person I know who succeeded in his chosen non-philosophical profession with a degree in philosophy!). The lecture discussed governance failure and corporate social responsibility, using the Mahabharata as backdrop, to draw analogies from, and explore sensitivity to Dharma.

“What is the point of doing good, if there are no rewards?” was a question asked to Gurucharan by a social worker somewhere in India. From this question, he takes us to the forest, where Pandavas are in exile, and Draupadi sees that all those who compromise with Dharma prosper, while they (and Yudishtra in particular, who never waives from the path of Dharma) suffer. What does Dharma allow? Did Dharma allow Yudishtra to give Draupadi away after he gave himself away in the game of dice?

We came back to modern India. The economy is growing, the population growth rate has dropped substantially, and there is a steady (though slow) decline in poverty. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s all happening in spite of terrible governance. As examples, we see huge teacher absenteeism in government schools, negligent government doctors, police not functioning, and businesses not transparent. Can behavior based on Dharma lead to economic harmony? Or, as Draupadi declared, “Power is all that matters.”

Coming back to the absent teachers (the specific example constantly explored), there is an over 25% absentee rate in India, and half of those present do not teach. So, 2/3 of ALL government schoolteachers don’t do anything. Even in neighboring Bangladesh, there is only a 14% absentee rate. This abysmal negligence results in very low educational standards and literacy rates, and the poor are forced to enroll their children in more expensive private schools. What’s funny is that government school teachers are quite highly paid (starting salary of Rs. 8500, with perks), while private school teachers usually earn from Rs 2000-5000 (having worked with many of those, I’m more comfortable with these numbers), yet these private teachers deliver higher performance standards (though they may not be spectacular), because they are accountable. In a few states, there were efforts to confront this problem. For example, in MP, Digvijay Singh tried to make teachers more accountable, by making them answerable to the panchayat or local parent associations (who could deduct their salary if they were absent). Guess what, teachers are all-powerful during elections (they are held in rural school classrooms, with teachers supervising). According to Digvijay Singh, his move (extremely unpopular with teachers) resulted in the powerful teachers union working against him, and influencing elections (all held in their classrooms).

Gurucharan Das went on to describe how, in the various education reform meetings (filled with politicians and bureaucrats) there is extensive discussion on resources or targets. But there has never been a discussion on teachers. Now, India spends nearly 4% of its GDP on education. This puts us right in the middle bracket of spending for education. But our performance remains at the bottom of the barrel.

Back to the Mahabharata, during the game of dice, Vidura, who also constantly upheld Dharma, pleads with the blind king. He says, “To save a family, sacrifice an individual. To save a village, sacrifice a family, and to save a country, sacrifice a village”. His words are not heeded, and he walks out of the assembly in rage. Vidura looks at Dharma using a simple cost vs. benefits analysis, and it sums up the greater good. But to Yudishtra, this is unacceptable. He upholds Dharma (as he tells Draupadi) because he must, and because Adharma leads to damnation, and because he sees Dharma as a ship. If people are not good, social order will collapse, and the rules for cooperation will no longer exist.

Back to corporate India, and Dhirubhai Ambani’s story. On one side, it was the glorious rags to riches story. On the other, it is a tale of deceit and manipulation, and the license raj. It has undoubtedly benefited millions of people (almost 8% of India’s taxes are collected from Reliance industries). Yet laws were broken with impunity. In Yudishtra’s words, ends cannot justify means. This brought Das to the topic of corporate social responsibility, and how corporations had excellent internal governance standards and codes, but little mattered to them when dealing with the greater economy.

So with teachers or with corporations, the problem is the same. Can a sense of duty be given to any of these? Plato and Aristotle believed that virtue could be taught. Reform of schools or corporations or greater government is all our work.

While concluding Gurucharan Das mused again, “What is the point of it all, the point of being good? Being good will result in greater rewards by themselves.”


Riot said...


More and more corporations are singing the song of sustainable development these days. Take for example GE one of the heavy polluters. (Their wind energy business is supposedly doing extremely well) I wonder if GE is going green because

#Can make money ?
#Better brand image ?
#Realization of the fact that environment is screwed pretty bad ?
#Investors are more aware and are asking questions and demanding answers ?

I think it is a little bit of everything. I do agree "Reform of schools or corporations or government is all our work "

btw .. you mentioned that India's population growth is going down. Do u have some figures ?

Anonymous said...

The absentee rate among teachers is alarming! Instead of the government taking action, are the parents trying to protest? I have no experience with any of these things, but I feel that it should make some difference at least. And if it does not, I'm shocked.

Anonymous said...

Sunil, very interesting post - liked the back and forth perspective. I had written about the teacher truancy problem long ago based on a report on the BBC. Think you will fin it interesting -
the report also says - "Salaries do not make any significant difference to truancy. Better infrastructure improves teacher attendance a little"

Also wanted to point out this post to you by Dr.Malpani - " Why I feel educating doctors about ethics is futile"

I agree broadly with what he says - ethical conduct cannot be taught - you either have it or not. ditto with a sense of duty.

Anonymous said...

Welcome back Sunil. Hope you had a nice vacation.

Gurcharan Das' book, I think, has a slightly different take on Ambani. At least Das' tone justifies Ambani's manipulations. Here's one relevant quote.

Dhirubai's story is an Indian morality play. At one level, it is a classic rags-to-riches story. It is about the ascent of a simple village boy who created against all odds a globally competitive enterprise to become the most powerful businessman of modern India. At another level, it highlights the dilemma posed by a decaying and corrupt system. Does one give up one's dream of an outstanding, world-class enterprise defeated by retrograde laws or does one match wits against the system?

The problem with our kind of development is that we emulate Vidura beyond a point. In our hurry to save the country we seem to be sacrificing all our villages!

Incidentally, I think Das spells his first name as Gurcharan.

Sunil said...

one more reason.......the population growth rate has come down substantially......from around 3% in the 60's and early 70's to 1.9% in the nineties, to 1.5% (2002 estimate). That is substantial as a reduction, but 1.5% means that we're adding millions of people more to the population every year! Thats a lot.

And yes....most corporations are finding that it makes economic sense to be they're shifting. They are not doing it out of any moral arguement at all. :-) is alarming, but it is also not easy to protest. Teachers are not accountable. Even if people protest, the teachers will get their salaries. Additionally, teachers are amongst the most powerful people in the village (often doubling as public notaries, and election officials). Digvijay Singh tried to give panchayats and parents more powers.....and faced the wrath of teachers. It's not really that different from some of the effects we've seen of excessive unionization in Kerala or Bengal. The common man ends up suffering more!

Charu.....i've been following the teacher absentee problem for a couple of years now, and it seems to be becoming more and more alarming. is not the problem here. Accountability is. The government needs to make its employees accountable. If they don't do their job, they should be fired, without compensation. Or thrown in jail. Or whatever. But for that, you need a rapid and effective judiciary, but that is another failure of governance :-). And any ethical education that happens late in life is bound to fail. If at all there is any ethical education, it needs to happen early, and its benifits need to be made apparent early as well. I don't think teachers or doctors can be taught ethics....

Amrit, yes, teachers are often a menace. But given the status of many government schools, completing the syllabus there will be a boon and a beautiful dream for parents and children there. Creative learning is not even a dream! Such is the situation.

Anand....yes, he some times spells it as Gurcharan. But in "India Unbound" he says he was named Guru Charan (because his father took him to his guru, laid him at his feet, and asked the guru to name him, and he replied "Guru Charan") i've just left it as Gurucharan.

And yes.......i think there was a little flip-flop there.....but here he was exploring the moral aspect of it, and there it was more the economic aspect alone. Here, he focuses more on the rot itself (in license raj and poor governance), than in Ambani's machinations. And I agree with your take on our kind of development........i don't think it should be development of one at the cost of the other at all......that is foolish, and you're abandoning a village to ruin a country!

Anonymous said...

Regarding your comment about unionisation:

There's a recent paper by Michael Kremer et al (Harvard Univ) on teacher absenteeism in India. You can get the paper at Kremer's webpage. Table 6 in the paper gives the regression figures for teacher absence wrt various parameters. It turns out that if a teacher belongs to a union there's a 0.07 percentage point decrease in his/her being absent from the school. Unionism is good. At least not bad at all. This is in conformity with my experience in a village school as well.

The study also indicates that existence of PTA, mid day meal scheme, better parental education levels, school inspections etc reduce teacher absenteeism, and lack of infrastructure in the school, being a male, being a head teacher, all these might contribute to absenteeism.

Also the teacher absence levels in Kerala and West Bengal are below the national average, though far far from satisfactory.

Sunil said...

Anand......the key point here is not unionization, but accountability.

Kerala and Bengal have high teacher absenteeism, and fall in the bottom third of the nation (both states have ~30% absenteeism, compared to a national average of 25%). When Digvijay Singh made teachers accountable, by giving panchayats and parent associations more powers (to penalize the teachers), absenteeism dropped to about 14%. But the strongly unionized teachers hated being forced to do their duty. So, they went strongly against him during the elections (of course, i understand that there were many other problems with Digvijay Singh, but look at who's ruling MP right now....Gaur and Uma Bharati before), and with electronic voting machines, it is easier to rig elections (since teachers could effectively cast the vote for voters who did not show up but were on the rolls). There were a number of reports of these incidents, confirmed by anecdotal evidence.

Mid day meals substantially improve student attendence and reduces drop-out rates, but it's popularity with teachers is pretty low (they hate the extra work here also, but it is often understandable, since in many schools there are no cooks, but teachers need to figure out the cooking!!). But teacher attendence will substantially improve if they are held accountable, and if PTAs can with hold their salaries if they do not perform. And if there are regular inspections by inspectors who can suspend or dismiss teachers (which is almost impossible, thanks to the misuse of power by teacher unions). The inspectors themselves fail in their duties (that is the greater governance failure here).

I personally don't have any thing against teacher unions working for teacher rights. But in India it has mostly been a misuse of that bargaining power.

Additionally, the fact that over 75% of the teachers are male has had a big impact in techer absenteeism. Various reports have found better attendence of female teachers. The reasons seem to be many. One common scam is that some teachers dont teach in school, but just sign the register, take their pay, and have other full-time day jobs (or run their farms).

Rohit De said...

Thanks for the tipoff. He is speaking at Yale tommorow, will definately make it there.

Anonymous said...

Very Interesting! with "Being good" Our thought are good & so is our actions India is marching for good inspite of all odds we are facing. Dr.Mahesh M.Shah