Ethically Speaking

“Wishing you many happy returns on your sixtieth birthday,” so saying, I called my friend, Mahesh. He replied, “Rajan thanks for the greetings, but to be frank, my birthday is on 5th December and not today, on 2nd April. For the purpose of saving one academic year, this date of 02nd April was indicated by my father on my school admission form.”

The above is not an isolated event, it happens frequently.

During the Chemistry lab period in the PUC days, there were experiments on identifying an element defined by sequence; by performing the dry test, wet test, and then the confirmatory tests. The demonstrator used to tell us ‘during exams, don’t waste time on the first two tests; go straight to the confirmatory test, and if you get time, do the previous ones. Bypassing the system with false birth certificates or taking short cuts was the name of the game.

Engineering Drawing was one of the time-consuming subjects in college. Unlike the CAD/ CAM environment today, where designs are made on computers, we had to make elaborate engineering drawings. Each assignment made on an A2/A3 drawing sheet needed an elaborate setup of a drawing board, mini drafter, T-square, compass, divider, set square, etc. It used to take around 2-3 hours to complete an assignment. The practise of GT (Glass Tracing) among hostelites was quite common. The GT procedure was simple. An assignment completed by a sincere student was glass traced by other students. A table lamp was kept in a bucket covered with a glass sheet; the blank sheet was aligned over the completed sheet. The lit lamp helped the student trace the original and the assignment could be completed in no time. The general consensus among the student fraternity was that the guy who took all the effort to complete the drawing in the 1st angle, 3rd angle, and a sectional view, was an idiot, while the people who copied it in one fifth the time were intelligent and smart.

In one humorous instance, Iqbal Singh, from the Civil Engineering batch, was so ‘meticulous’ that apart from tracing the drawing, he copied the name and the roll number of the original student! The scene is no different today, for several agencies offer ready-made projects for engineering students for a fee.

A certain lecturer used to share with his colleagues, his life-long ambition of becoming a Vice-Chancellor (VC) of a university. Over a while, he moved up the hierarchy of senior lecturer, reader, and finally became a professor. A post for a VC was advertised in the papers. He applied but came to know that, more than merit, caste and money played an important role in the recruitment for this position. He managed to raise around Rs 3 crores for this, yet he was shocked to see the post eventually going to the highest bidder. The professor pulled back his application.

Much later, an advertisement appeared for another VCs post. This time, he knew the crucial role of politicians and middlemen. He developed contacts, moved heaven and earth to raise around Rs. 5 crores; despite being questioned by his friends, from an ethics and ROI perspective. The attempt for this second time to the post also eluded him. He committed suicide later.

I used to believe that such respectable positions need not be advertised but were filled by selecting eminent people with exceptional credentials. As Nirad Chowdhury wrote in the Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, an Indian’s faith in a bribe is infinite and unshakable. It is an infallible remedy for all workday inconveniences.

Academicians have used the terms ethics and morality interchangeably. Some people think that morality is personal and normative whereas ethics indicates the standards of good and bad as decided by community settings. It can be also looked at from a perspective of means and the ends. People have their own yardsticks in justifying their actions. As Robert Pirsig writes in the Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and what is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good – need we ask anyone to tell us these things? The three examples to illustrate the point are:

  1. Ratan Tata used to say, “Why should I spend time with bureaucrats in Delhi? They are supposed to do their work and I am supposed to do mine.” On the other hand, (the late) Dhirubhai Ambani had a different take. “You offer naivedya to God while visiting a temple. Why not deal with bureaucrats on a similar line?”
  2. The Karnataka Vidhana Soudha has an inscription on its façade: ‘Government’s work is God’s Work.’ I overheard a babu saying, “Anyway it is God’s work. Why should I?”
  3. A departmental store was run by two partners for 30 years. The 2nd generation was to take over the business. The first partner’s son who had passed out from an elite management institute asked his father, “We have learned all the aspects of running a business, the one topic I am not clear is about ethics. Can you elaborate on the same? The father explained, “it is quite elementary. Imagine a lady buys a dress for Rs. 1000 and while paying at the billing counter she inadvertently pays Rs, 2000. Now my son, the question of ethics comes, should we tell our partner or not.”

My niece Rupali Patil teaches in an upmarket public school in Whitefield Bengaluru. She narrated some interesting anecdotes while conducting on-line examinations. The students are asked to keep the laptop at a specific angle to ensure they do not look at any material on their lap while writing answers. Parents are requested not to walk around or prompt the students while answering the question papers. Some parents have written papers themselves. One audacious father dared to sit underneath the table and prompt the answers. When asked how it was detected, I gleaned that the student used to normally score 10 out of 50, but scored 40 in that exam; he subsequently boasted to his friends how his father had helped him.

While websites like exam.net are used to ensure that students do not lose their focus on the screen, or use the second browser to get answers, by locking down; ingenious means are used to work around the system.

The school being in Whitefield, Bengaluru the following conjectures were thought of:

  1. Considering the location and the school fees, is it safe to assume that a majority of student’s families belong to the upper middle class, well-educated with Graduate/Post Graduate degrees?
  2. Is it safe to assume that the parents are working in renowned MNCs (Indian or International) with well-established guidelines on Vision, Mission, Values, and Ethics policies? If so, should there be a divergence in behaviour between the professional life of a manager vis-à-vis that of a parent?

Education can be perceived as an end to realize one’s potential, or it can be simply a means to get a job in earning a livelihood. The former makes us holistically look at life, whereas the latter makes it transactional. Philosopher Immanuel Kant says that a rational human being is an end in himself and not a means to achieve something. When our attitude and behaviour are oriented towards means, quality becomes the main casualty.

Abraham Lincoln in his letter to his son’s headmaster wrote:

“Teach him if you can that a dollar earned is of far more value than five found. In school teach him it is far more honourable to fail than to cheat. Teach him to have faith in his own ideas, even if everyone tells him they are wrong!”

On a personal note, now when I call my friends, with trepidation I first ask “Before wishing you birthday greetings, is today your actual or official birthday?”

We set our own standards: “Jahaan hum khade rahtey hain; wahin se kataar shuru hoti hai!” – Wherever I (honorific) stand, the queue starts from there!.

Jai ho ‘Atmanirbhar’ Bharat!

Rajan Parulekar – Director, Hospitality Paradigm

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