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'India Needs a New Value System'

January 2003
'India Needs a New Value System'

So says India's leading business luminary, N. R. Narayana Murthy, Chairman, Infosys Technologies. In a brilliant speech that many have hailed as textbook material for Indian schools, Murthy draws from Western values to address the deficiencies of the prevailing Indian mentality. It is an honest introspection from which all Indians in India and abroad could benefit.

[Following are excerpts from the talk delivered at the Lal Bahadur Shastri Institute of Management, New Delhi, October 1, 2002]

When I got an invitation to speak here, I decided to speak on an important topic on which I have pondered for years ? the role of Western values in contemporary Indian society. Coming from a company that is built on strong values, the topic is close to my heart. In fact, values drive progress and define quality of life in society.

The word community joins two Latin words com ('together' or 'with') and unus (?one?). A community, then, is both one and many. It is a unified multitude and not a mere group of people. As it is said in the Vedas: Man can live individually, but can survive only collectively. Hence, our challenge is to form a progressive community by balancing the interests of the individual and that of the society. To meet this, we need to develop a value system where people accept modest sacrifices for the common good.

A value system is the protocol for behavior that enhances the trust, confidence and commitment of members of the community. It goes beyond the domain of legality -- it is about decent and desirable behavior. Further, it includes putting the community interests ahead of your own. Thus, our collective survival and progress is predicated on sound values.

Family values at odds with community values

There are two pillars of the cultural value system -- loyalty to family and loyalty to community. One should not be seen in isolation from the other, because successful societies are those that combine both harmoniously. It is in this context that I will discuss the role of Western values in contemporary Indian society.

Some of you here might say that most of what I am going to discuss are actually Indian values in old ages, and not Western values. I live in the present, not in the bygone era. Therefore, I have seen these values practiced primarily in the West and not in India. Hence, the title of the topic. I am happy as long as we practice these values ? whether we call it Western or old Indian values.

As an Indian, I am proud to be part of a culture that has deep-rooted family values. We have tremendous loyalty to the family. For instance, parents make enormous sacrifices for their children. They support them until they can stand on their own feet. On the other side, children consider it their duty to take care of aged parents. We believe: 'Mathru devo bhava, pithru devo bhava' (Mother is God and Father is God). Further, brothers and sisters sacrifice for each other.

As for marriage, it is held to be a sacred union -- husband and wife are bonded, most often, for life. In joint families, the entire family works towards the welfare of the family. There is so much love and affection in our family life. This is the essence of Indian values and one of our key strengths. Our families act as a critical support mechanism for us.

Unfortunately, our attitude towards family life is not reflected in our attitude towards community behavior. From littering the streets to corruption to breaking of contractual obligations, we are apathetic towards the common good. The primary difference between the West and us is that, there, people have a much better societal orientation. In the West -- the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand -- individuals understand that they have to be responsible towards their community. They care more for society than we do. Further, they generally sacrifice more for society than us. Quality of life is enhanced because of this. This is where we need to learn from the West.

Consider some of the lessons that we can learn from the West:������

?h Respect for the public good -- In the West, there is respect for the public good. For instance, parks free of litter, clean streets, public toilets free of graffiti -- all these are instances of care for the public good. On the contrary, in India, we keep our houses clean and water our gardens everyday but, when we go to a park, we do not think twice before littering the place.������

?h Attitude to corruption -- Corruption, as we see in India, is another example of putting the interest of oneself, and at best that of one?s family, above that of the society. Society is relatively corruption free in the West. For instance, it is very difficult to bribe a police officer into avoiding a speeding ticket. This is because of the individual's responsible behavior towards the community as a whole. On the contrary, in India, corruption, tax evasion, cheating and bribery have eaten into our vitals. For instance, contractors bribe officials, and construct low-quality roads and bridges. The result is that society loses in the form of substandard defense equipment and infrastructure, and low-quality recruitment, just to name a few impediments. Unfortunately, this behavior is condoned by almost everyone.���


?h Public apathy -- Apathy in solving community matters has held us back from making progress, which is otherwise within our reach. We see serious problems around us, but do not try to solve them. We behave as if the problems do not exist or are somebody else's. On the other hand, in the West, people solve societal problems proactively. There are several examples of our apathetic attitude. For instance, all of us are aware of the problem of drought in India. More than 40 years ago, Dr. K. L. Rao ? an irrigation expert, suggested creation of a water grid connecting all the rivers in North and South India, to solve this problem. Unfortunately, nothing has been done about this. The story of power shortage in Bangalore is another instance. In 1983, it was decided to build a thermal power plant to meet Bangalore?s power requirements. Unfortunately, we have still not started it. Further, the Milan subway in Bombay is in a deplorable state for the last 40 years, and no action has been taken. We, Indians, would do well to remember Thomas Hunter?s words: ?Idleness travels very slowly, and poverty soon overtakes it?.

A national psyche marred by foreign rule: facade of superiority

What could be the reason for this? We were ruled by foreigners for over a thousand years. Thus, we have always believed that public issues belonged to some foreign ruler and that we have no role in solving them. Moreover, we have lost the will to proactively solve our own problems and have got used to just executing someone else?s orders. Borrowing Aristotle?s words: ?We are what we repeatedly do?. Thus, having done this over the years, the decision-makers in our society are not trained for solving problems. Our decision-makers look to somebody else to take decisions. Unfortunately, there is nobody to look up to, and this is the tragedy.

Our intellectual arrogance has also not helped our society. I have traveled extensively, and in my experience, 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. Remember that arrogance breeds hypocrisy. No other society gloats so much about the past as we do, with as little current accomplishment.������

The most important attribute of a progressive society is respect for others who have accomplished more than they themselves have, and willingness to learn from them. Contrary to this, our leaders make us believe that other societies do not know anything!������ At the same time, everyday, in the newspapers, you will find numerous claims from our leaders that ours is the greatest nation. This has to stop. These people would do well to remember Thomas Carlyle?s words: ?The greatest of faults is to be conscious of none?. If we have to progress, we have to change this attitude, listen to people who have performed better than us, learn from them and perform better than them.������

We continue to rationalize our failures. No other society has mastered this art as well as we have. Obviously, this is an excuse to justify our incompetence, corruption, and apathy. This attitude has to change. As Sir Josiah Stamp has said: ?It is easy to dodge our responsibilities, but we cannot dodge the consequences of dodging our responsibilities?.������

Irrespective of your position, in the West, you are held accountable for what you do. However, in India, the more ?important? you are, the less answerable you are.������

In the West, each person is proud about his or her labor that raises honest sweat. On the other hand, in India, we tend to overlook the significance of those who are not in professional jobs. We have a mindset that reveres 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. However, be it an organization or society, there are different people performing different roles. For success, all these people are required to discharge their duties. This includes everyone from the CEO to the person who serves tea -- every role is important. Hence, we need a mindset that reveres everyone who puts in honest work.������

Unearned intimacy

Indians become intimate even without being friendly. They ask favors of strangers without any hesitation. For instance, the other day, while I was traveling from Bangalore to Mantralayam, I met a fellow traveler on the train. Hardly five minutes into the conversation, he requested me to speak to his MD about removing him from the bottom 10 per cent list in his company, earmarked for disciplinary action. I was reminded of what Rudyard Kipling once said: ?A westerner can be friendly without being intimate while an easterner tends to be intimate without being friendly?.������

Professionalism in dealings

Yet another lesson to be learnt from the West is about their professionalism in dealings. The common good being more important than personal equations, people do not let personal relations interfere with their professional dealings. For instance, they don?t hesitate to chastise a colleague, even if he is a personal friend, for incompetent work. In India, I have seen that we tend to view even work interactions from a personal perspective. Further, we are the most ?thin-skinned? society in the world -- we see insults where none is meant. This may be because we were not free for most of the last thousand years.������

Further, we seem to extend this lack of professionalism to our sense of punctuality. We do not seem to respect the other person?s time. The Indian Standard Time somehow seems to be always running late. Moreover, deadlines are typically not met. How many public projects are completed on time? The disheartening aspect is that we have accepted this as the norm rather than an exception.

In the West, they show professionalism by embracing meritocracy. Meritocracy by definition means that we cannot let personal prejudices affect our evaluation of an individual?s performance. As we increasingly start to benchmark ourselves with global standards, we have to embrace meritocracy. In the West, right from a very young age, parents teach their children to be independent in thinking. Thus, they grow up to be strong, confident individuals. In India, we still suffer from feudal thinking. I have seen people who are otherwise bright, refusing to show independence and preferring to be told what to do by their boss. We need to overcome this attitude if we have to succeed globally.������

The Western value system teaches respect to contractual obligation. Contractual obligations are seldom dishonored. This is important -- enforceability of legal rights and contracts is the most important factor in the enhancement of credibility of our people and nation. In India, we consider our marriage vows as sacred. We are willing to sacrifice in order to respect our marriage vows. However, we do not extend this to the public domain. For instance, India had an unfavorable contract with Enron. Instead of punishing the people responsible for negotiating this, we reneged on the contract -- this was much before we came to know about the illegal activities at Enron.������

Further, we Indians do not display intellectual honesty. For example, our political leaders use mobile phones to tell journalists on the other side that they do not believe in technology! If we want our youngsters to progress, such hypocrisy must be stopped.������

Rights and Duties

We are all aware of our rights as citizens. Nevertheless, we often fail to acknowledge the duty that accompanies every right. To borrow Dwight Eisenhower?s words: ?A people that values its privileges above its principles, soon loses both?. Our duty is towards the community as a whole, as much as it is towards our families. We have to remember that fundamental social problems grow out of a lack of commitment to the common good. To quote Henry Beecher: ?Culture is that which helps us to work for the betterment of all?. Hence, friends, I do believe that we can make our society even better by assimilating these Western values into our own culture -- we will be stronger for it.

Most of our behavior comes from greed, lack of self-confidence, lack of confidence in the nation, and lack of respect for the society. To borrow Gandhi?s words: ?There is enough in this world for everyone?s need, but not enough for everyone?s greed?. Let us work towards a society where we would do unto others what we would have others do unto us. Let us all be responsible citizens who make our country a great place to live. In the words of Winston Churchill, ?Responsibility is the price of greatness.? We have to extend our family values beyond the boundaries of our home.

Finally, Let us work towards maximum welfare of the maximum people -- ?Samasta janaanaam sukhino bhavantu?.���Thus, let us of this generation, conduct ourselves as great citizens rather than just good people so that we can serve as good examples for our younger generation.������

Thank you.

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