We need to incorporate certain Western maxims into our value system, argues one of India’s most successful businessmen.
The role of Western values in contemporary Indian society is a subject on which I have pondered for years. I come from a company that is built on strong values. Further, various stakeholders of our company, including employees, investors, customers and vendor-partners come from across the globe. In this context, over the years, there are several aspects of the Western value system that I have come to appreciate. Moreover, an organization is representative of society, and some of the lessons that I have learnt from the West regarding values are, I think, applicable to us as a nation. Here are some of them:
Respect for the public good: Indian culture has deep-rooted family values – parents make enormous sacrifices for their children; children consider it their duty to take care of aged parents; and marriage is held to be a sacred union with husband and wife bonded for life. Unfortunately, our attitude towards the community is very different from our attitude towards the family.
Although we keep our homes spotless, when we go out we do not think twice before littering. On the other hand, parks in the West are generally free of litter and streets are clean.
We are also apathetic about community matters. We see serious problems around us but behave as if they are someone else’s responsibility. For instance, all of us are aware of the problem of drought in India. More than 40 years ago, irrigation expert Dr. K. L. Rao suggested solving this problem by creating a water grid connecting the rivers in North and South India. However, nothing has been done about this.
The story of power shortage in Bangalore is another example. In 1983, it was decided to build a thermal power plant to meet Bangalore’s power requirements. Unfortunately, we have still not started it. Five years ago, because of the constant foreign travel required in the software industry, I suggested a 240-page passport to the government so that frequent visits to the passport office are avoided. I have yet to get a reply from the Ministry of External Affairs regarding this.
Could the reason for all this be that we were ruled by foreigners for over a thousand years and came to believe that solving public problems was the responsibility of a foreign ruler, not ours? Even our decision-makers look to some else to take decisions.
In the West, individuals understand that they have to be responsible to their community. They care for their society and they sacrifice for it. Further, they solve societal problems proactively. This is where we need to learn from the West. Successful societies are those that harmoniously combine loyalty to family and loyalty to community.
Acknowledging the accomplishments of others: In my extensive travels, I have not come across another society where people are as contemptuous of better societies as we are, with as little progress as we have achieved. This attitude, incidentally, is nothing new – Al Barouni, the noted Arabic logician and traveler of the 10th century, who spent about 30 years in India, referred to it. According to him, most Indian pundits considered it below their dignity even to debate with him. In fact, on the few occasions when a pundit was willing to listen to Barouni, and found his arguments to be sound, the pundit invariably asked the Arab philosopher which Indian had taught him!
If we want to progress, we must listen to and learn from people who have performed better than us.
Accountability: Another attribute we must learn from the West is accountability. There, you are held responsible for what you do irrespective of your position. However, in India, the more ‘important’ you are, the less answerable you become. For instance, a senior politician once declared that he ‘forgot’ to file his tax returns for 10 consecutive years – and got away with it. Although there are over 100 loss-making public sector units belonging to the central government, I have not seen action taken for bad performance against top managers in these organizations.
Dignity of labor: Whereas this is an integral part of Western value system, in India, we revere only supposedly intellectual work. For instance, I have seen many engineers, fresh from college, who only want to do cutting-edge work and not work that is of relevance to business and the country. For anything to be run successfully, everyone – from the CEO to the person who serves tea – must discharge his or her duties in a responsible manner. We, therefore, need a mindset that reveres everyone who puts in honest work, no matter what it is.
Professionalism: In the West, people do not let personal relations interfere with their professional dealings. They do not hesitate to chastise a colleague for incompetence, even if he is a friend. In India, we tend to view even work interactions from a personal perspective. We are also the most thin-skinned society in the world – we see insults where none is meant.
We extend this lack of professionalism to our sense of punctuality. We do not respect the other person’s time. Indian Standard Time always runs late, and deadlines are typically not met.
Intellectual independence: From the time their children are very young, Western parents teach them to think for themselves. Hence, these children grow up to be strong, confident adults. However, in India, we suffer from feudal thinking. I have seen bright people who prefer to be told what to do by their bosses. We need to overcome this attitude if we are to succeed globally.
Honoring contracts: The Western value system teaches respect for contractual obligations. In India, we consider our marriage vows as sacred. However, we do not extend this to the public domain. For instance, I had recommended several students for national scholarships for higher studies in US universities. Most of them did not return to India even though contractually they were obliged to spend five years here after getting their degree. Moreover, according to a professor at a reputed US university, the highest default rate for student loans is among Indians, even though they land lucrative jobs after graduating. In fact, their behavior has made it difficult for other Indian students to get loans. We have to change this attitude.
We are all aware of our rights as citizens. However, we often fail to acknowledge the duty that accompanies every right. We should keep in mind what former US president Dwight Eisenhower said: “A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.” So let us work towards a society where “we would do unto others what we would have them do unto us” and make our country great.
This speech was delivered by Mr. Murthy, when he received the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Award for Excellence in Public Administration and Management Sciences for the year 2001 from the Lal Bahadur Shastri Institute of Management, New Delhi.