“The time has come to think seriously about whether we have a national character or not,” Today, unfortunately, the atmosphere is that if you go to anybody for work, that person will immediately ask, ‘What is in this for me?’ When he learns that there is nothing for him, he will say, ‘Why should I?”
My father always told me that there is no substitute for good honest hard work. He used to say that what you do is much less important than how you do it. Whether you are mopping a floor or finding a cure for cancer, do your job to the best of your abilities and take pride in doing it. What happened to the work ethic of our fathers and grandfathers? Why do Indians today seem to lack pride in everything we do, including being Indian?
Perhaps it has to do with the fact that we all grew up during the license Raj, when graft was just as much a part of our daily routine as brushing our teeth. The postman wanted his baksheesh to deliver our letters, the garbage man to take out the trash, the policeman to file a complaint, and the politician for doing absolutely nothing other than being elected to office. It seemed nobody wanted to do his job, just to sit back and collect money from the same taxpayer who was paying his salary. We could not renew our passports without bribing someone or having a connection high up in the bureaucracy. We could pass our driving test but not be issued a license unless we were willing to grease a palm. In fact, we had to bribe someone for virtually every basic right we had as citizens of the world’s largest democracy; for our water, electricity, to pass through toll booths, to get a telephone line and even to park our car in a free public parking lot.
After we got rid of the license Raj, ushering in an era of liberalisation, instead of ridding us of the disease of graft, we may have just spread it further afield. Today, it has been extended into a willingness to use money as a means to get ahead in every aspect of life. We seem to have become content using our increasing disposable income to willingly pay people to help us cut queues, get our kids into school, to avoid penalties for wrongdoing, and even to help us escape the clutches of the law, after we have knowingly and brazenly broken it. Is this what we want to accomplish with our growing economic prosperity: the ability to buy people and cut corners without earning anything rightfully or on merit? We seem to have become a society of rule breakers for those with means and money, content to apply a different set of rules for those without. As our new Prime Minister stated in his Independence Day speech, the only thing a growing majority of people seem to care about is what’s in it for them. It has reached a point where people are not willing to perform their paid obligations or help their fellow Indians in need, unless they are incentivized in some way. We call ourselves a democratic society, yet how many times have citizens been assaulted and told that it is better not to go to the police or that it would be wiser to buy justice? I even know of a well-respected surgeon in Bombay who decided to negotiate the amount he would be paid in “cash” (or black money) before allowing the patient to be wheeled into the operating theater for the life-saving surgery he was about to perform. It seems neither education nor upbringing have any effect on this mentality of pure and unadulterated greed. We have become a society that never cares to ask what we can do for our fellow man, woman or country.
Yet, every Indian likes to talk about India becoming a global super power. We yearn for respect on the world stage, and want to stand shoulder to shoulder with America, but we do not feel ashamed to pee on the street or outraged by the fact that 60% of Indians still defecate in the open due to lack of toilets. Nor do we seem embarrassed by the fact that our flyovers and highways, many built a mere decade ago, are already crumbling (or are yet to be completed). It took us almost as long as we have been an independent nation to build one sea-link in traffic-congested Bombay; however we were content talking about building it for more than fifty years. We love to talk, but when it comes to action we don’t seem to care about following through or doing it with pride. The great irony in all this is that this seeming apathy has nothing to do with our lack of talent or smarts. When we put our minds to it and our country first, we can build on time and under budget the world’s best and most advanced underground metro in New Delhi and a smart airport terminal in Bombay. A terminal on the strength of which Bombay (the only Indian city) has made the recently released A-list on National Geographic's list of "smart cities," across the world. What’s more, people all over the world marvel at the work ethic, brilliance and innovation of Indian immigrants. From high-tech and engineering to the arts and the corporate world, Indians excel in virtually every field that we compete in. Indian immigrants who left India with nothing now own the majority of homes in the affluent suburbs of North London, and rule the boardrooms of Silicon Valley. There was a time when Indians left due to the lack of opportunities within India. This is also no longer true. In fact, India today is one of the greatest lands of opportunity and potential in the world and more attractive than China because we have a stable government and democratic systems that work (for the most part) - so why are we seemingly still unable to unleash this potential we have on paper and fulfill our destiny on the world stage? At the moment it seems like the more we liberalise and open up our economy, the more we seem to encourage a society where the shortest, fastest and least honest and hardworking path to success seems to be the correct one. Success is measured almost entirely by the increased number of zeroes in our personal bank account. What would happen if we spent one decade giving back to our country and helping everyone grow?
I am proud to be an Indian. I am prouder yet to be part of a civilization whose origins date to before Christianity; but that is the past. I want to be proud of our present and future through tangible successes, not just words and chest beating. I want to be proud of the great public institutions we build, of world-beating product innovations and brands we create, of our indigenous missile defense systems that become the envy of the world. I want to be proud of our space program and 23rd century urban infrastructure and transportation systems. I want footpaths in every city, toilets in every home, educational institutions that rival Harvard and Cambridge, attracting the brightest and best student minds from every corner of the globe. I want clean city streets and paved rural roads. I want teachers and parents to once again instill a civic sense and pride in the next generation of children. I want us to take pride in what we can accomplish, collectively as a nation, if each of us were to put his mind to it, point his heart in the right direction. If we can see put aside just a small amount of our selfish needs and desires and think for a moment about how we can contribute to building a better, stronger and more developed India, then we will all see Acche Din...