Building resistance to corruption

There has been a lot of news recently about the Ranbaxy scam, which I have read, and by which I am very disturbed. The fact that one of India’s largest pharma companies – and a company that made nearly Rs 2,000 crores of profits after tax in the last 3 years – engaged in such gross and blatant falsification of results, beggars the imagination. The litany of wrongs that they’ve committed seems unending: making up faked data, swapping samples with competitors’ products, and even forging their own standard operating procedures, artificially ageing them by cooking in a steam room overnight.

In the last few years, with movements like Anna Hazare’s capturing the imagination of many Indians, I find that subconsciously, we believe that corruption is limited to politicians, and more generally to the public sector. Ranbaxy makes me think deeply about a more pervasive corruption, and how it has almost become part of the Indian DNA. What causes this corruption? And how do we fix it?

As a thought experiment, I put myself in the shoes of the CEO of Ranbaxy, who is told that his company’s research data is fabricated, and now has to decide what to do. Realize, first of all, that the decision is not black-and-white. There is no evidence (so far, at least) that the medicines that Ranbaxy released killed anyone. It appears that most of the medicines that Ranbaxy sold were, in fact, more or less effective as claimed. The falsifications they indulged in were primarily related to the Regulatory Approvals process. As a CEO, if I thought (and the market seemed to confirm) that my medicines were effective enough – but the FDA wanted me to perform costly and seemingly unnecessary experiments for certification, would I consider it a crime to forge? I know many people who would not mind.

But therein lies the danger. As we develop greater and greater dependence on science in human society, it is important for the people in-charge to have a very clear understanding of the link between science, technology, products and consumers. We know from our days of schoolboy experiments in the Physics and Chemistry labs, for example, that not all experiments succeed; not always do we get the results we expect. However, if we are well-trained in science or engineering, we slowly come to terms with the fact that even in the face of this uncertainty – Nature, after all, has no obligation to conform to our Science – we still find enough that is predictable and controllable, to be able to make technology, build products, and sell them to customers.

In the use of any science to serve a customer, there is an intricate interplay of human knowledge, human ignorance, technology and risk. Regulators do not insist on procedures because they want to create excess work for entrepreneurs; they do so because they (and most good scientists) understand that certain procedures and experiments help reduce the inherent risk of applied science.

I think the decision to cut corners in Ranbaxy’s case was driven by a corporate culture that placed relentless focus on profits, to the detriment of good science. In India, we tend to have an ‘examination mentality’ – we feel very comfortable and secure if our performance, aspirations and ambitions can be boiled down to one number. We like an examination score because it is easy to calculate, easy to communicate, and standardized – and so it is with profit.

The societal problem occurs when the people in charge of making money from science and technology understand money, but do not understand science. They do not realize that their fragile world of profits rests upon that enormous philosophical edifice called “good science”. And they do not realize the cost of the corners that they callously cut.

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At its heart, corruption happens when quality is compromised. And where there is a strong aspiration to high quality, there is little room for corruption. How, then, can we cultivate this aspiration to quality? One potential source is if it is part of our culture; we would have an “immune resistance” to corruption if we lived in a corruption-free society. But that, for now, remains a pipe dream in India.

I think the strength to resist corruption should come, not from a person’s society, but from their profession. It is as repugnant for a well-trained engineer to cut corners while building a bridge, as it is for a mathematician to attest that 2 and 2 is 5. When we train our young engineers for ethics, the overarching theme should be that their first loyalty is always to quality, that secret ingredient that helps us commercialize science.

Alongside, we must ensure that our best engineers are empowered with business skills that will enable them to lead businesses, instead of bean-counters. This is, for example, a defining feature of German engineering companies: 60% of German executives have a PhD. When someone who has learnt the ethics of science (instead of the ethics of finance) runs a company, they may make less profit – but ultimately, the world will be a better place to live in.

Moti Guj, Mutineer

Today I had the chance to re-read a terrific story that Rudyard Kipling wrote many years ago. Like his best works, it is set in India, and is called simply “Moti Guj, Mutineer”. You can read it online here.

The story is about a huge elephant called Moti Guj, who is employed by a (white) coffee-planter to uproot stumps in some forest land which is being cleared for cultivation. This “very best of elephants” belongs to “the very worst of mahouts” – a drunkard called Deesa. After a hard day’s work, Deesa always get drunk on toddy, sharing his liquor with the elephant, and calling him a variety of terms of endearments and abuse.

One day, Deesa decides that he needs a break from his workman’s toil, and decides to go off in search of an orgy of bacchanalia, to get properly drunk. He asks for permission from the planter, who tells him he can take leave for ten days, but only if he will instruct Moti Guj to work under the instructions of another mahout, a gentle family man called Chihun. Deesa agrees, and Moti Guj begins hauling stumps under Chihun’s care. Chihun’s wife and baby pamper Moti Guj, and Chihun treats him very well. But Moti Guj “was a bachelor by instinct, just as Deesa was”, and does not understand these “domestic emotions”. For ten days he works regardless, and on the eleventh day, Deesa does not return – and Moti Guj goes on strike.

Chihun calls to him to return to work, but Moti Guj “put his hands in his pockets, chewed a branch for a toothpick, and strolled about the clearing, making fun of the other elephants who had just set to work.” The planter tries to have him chain-whipped by two other elephants, but he is so much bigger and more imposing that his taskmasters-to-be decide at the last minute to swing wide of him, and pretend they had “brought the chain out for amusement”. So Moti Guj strolls around, “talking nonsense about labour and the inalienable rights of elephants”, loafing around “like an eighty-ton cannon”, until finally, Deesa comes back, and all is well.

I love this story. Rudyard Kipling has the gift of drawing incredibly lovable characters, and his anthropomorphic description of Moti Guj is absolutely humorous. Kipling has no rival when it comes to describing elephants – from their physical appearance (such as Moti Guj, who, after his bath, comes up “all black and shining with a song from the sea”) to their mental processes (for example – apart from four or five hours of sleep, the rest of elephants’ nights are filled with “eating, and fidgeting, and long grumbling soliloquies”).

I consider Rudyard Kipling to be India’s first Nobel Laureate, and certainly the finest Indian poet and writer of the 20th century. I do not think Kipling himself would have liked very much to be called an Indian writer. But when you write about something, your story defines you instead of vice versa, and a writer is never described by his nationality quite so much as by the nations he writes about. Kipling’s poems are the best – he has a ear for the rhythms of the English language which is unparalleled by any writer before or since – but his short stories (like Moti Guj) are also evidently very, very good.

 

Peace

I had a minute of perfect peace today, at 12 40 in the afternoon. The power was off – Chennai’s daily two-hour power cut – and I was at the dining table, seated for lunch. The air was perfectly still, perfectly silent but a bird that twittered far away. Through the window I could see the verandah, the green trees of Kalakshetra beyond, a cloudless sky, a line of colorful clothes hung out to dry. Occasionally, a gentle breeze drifted by, out of nowhere, bringing a momentary coolness. The hot rasam in front of me breathed a gentle wispy column of steam. The meal we had cooked had turned out very well. No serious thoughts occupied me, no worries, no plans – the weekend stretched out ahead of me, like a summer vacation. It was perfect peace.

My thoughts drifted to another moment of peace – a longer moment – more than ten years ago, in October 2002. It was during Shaastra, the college technology festival, at about 4 in the afternoon. I was at the IIT Madras stadium where a group of perhaps 30 people had gathered. There was a rocketry competition going on. A large blue tub of water lay on the ground, and the contestants had to design and demonstrate a rocket that would launch out of the water and fly as far as possible. I was not participating; I was a Shaastra big-shot then, and I was sitting in the pavilions, a spectator to the action.

Inexplicably, in 5 years of life at IIT Madras, 5 years which are now a continuous stream of good memories one on the heels of another, this moment is my favorite memory. I can’t explain why – none of my closest friends were with me, and I had no stake in the competition, one way or another. But I remember the scene as vividly as if it was happening here, and now. At the center was the launch tub; surrounding it, a small circle of organizers and the present contestant; then a slightly larger circle of the other contestants, and a handful spectators like me. The IIT Madras stadium in the autumn afternoon is a vast blaze of green grass, ringed by the darker green of the institute woods on three sides and a shady pavilion on the fourth. The sky was spotless, a deep and calm blue. Hardly anyone spoke, and if they did, the voices in the central circles did not reach us on the periphery. Every five or ten minutes, a rocket would streak out of the water, breaking the stillness like a sudden lock of wind, and soar into the sky, traveling a couple of hundred meters in a perfect parabola. A patter of silent excitement in the field, and in the stands, perhaps I would turn to a companion and murmur a remark or comment, like old debenture-holders watching some county cricket match. I remember staying for half an hour.

It was half an hour of bliss, a Wind in the Willows moment. And perhaps there is nothing greater in life to look forward to than peace, and stillness, in the lap of nature, thinking nothing, being nobody, feeling the security that comes from being a little gear in the big machinery that is the great natural world around us, and an occasional splash of color in the sky or gust of wind in the air, giving us occasion to exchange brief commentary with an equal companion nearby.

 

On guilt

Does a sthithapragya – the ideal man of the Gita – feel guilt? This is not a question that has been addressed in the chapters of the Gita that I have studied so far, but upon reflection, my personal opinion seems to be – no.

Hindu philosophy specifies a number of ‘negative feelings’; negative feelings are defined as those feelings that interfere in a man’s performance of his ‘swadharma’. In the 3rd chapter, Krishna tells Arjuna that there is no greater way to becoming a karmayogi than for each person to do their self-duty, to be true to their nature. Arjuna asks Krishna what prevents a man from being true to himself. And Krishna enumerates two ‘negative feelings’ which stand in the way – kaama (desire) and krodha (anger). Krishna says these two feelings lead to a muddling of the intellect, which leads to destruction of equanimity, and eventually to misfortune.

In the course of the Gita, Krishna expands this list to six: kama, krodha, loba, moha, madha and matsarya – desire, anger, greed, intoxication, pride and jealousy. Guilt is an omission here.

An example of guilt leading to delusion and the omission of one’s duties is as follows. Assume that a doctor has to perform an important surgery. For various reasons, the doctor is tired and fatigued by lack of sleep, but against his better judgment, decides to go ahead with the surgery. This surgery turns out to be disastrous, and the patient dies, as a direct result of the doctor’s fatigue. Following this incident, the doctor can never perform any surgery of moderate complexity again, because his failure preys on his mind – he is consumed by an immoblizing, crippling guilt.

Is this an acceptable feeling for a disciplined karmayogi? I think it is not.

Even before reading the Gita, my standard for the description of ‘karmayoga’ was a passage from Kalhil Gibran’s the Prophet, in the chapter on “Giving”. The Prophet compares different attitudes that people have towards giving – for example, some people give because they expect something in return; some people give because they seek favour with God; some people give reluctantly because they are forced to it. And then the Prophet says there is a category of giver who gives like ‘yonder myrtle tree gives its fragrance into the air’ – not cognizant of whether it is doing good or doing bad, expecting nothing either materially or spiritually, but giving because that is its nature. I was deeply moved by this passage and I think in many ways, a sthithapragya should aspire to the same ‘non-conscious’ doing-good that the Prophet’s myrtle tree does, doing one’s self-duty with the faith that God has populated this world such that everyone’s duty plays a part in His creation, whether one is cognizant of it or not. Would the myrtle tree feel anger or greed or jealousy? No. Would the myrtle tree feel guilt? No.

Guilt is an enemy of the ‘living in the present’ which is the state of a jnani. By dwelling on the past, one cannot transcend the future. Krishna clearly addresses the negative feeling on ‘dwelling on the past’ because someone has caused a hurt to you. Strangely, Krishna does not (in the 5 chapters that I have studied) address the negative feeling of ‘dwelling in the past’ because you have caused a hurt to someone else.

Speaking for myself, I find guilt to be a greater immobilizer than anger or desire, though the latter two are also often the cause for misjudgment. But upon reflection, I am able to distinguish three kinds of anger. One is ‘righteous rage’ – for example when you hear about a terrorist attack; the second is ‘anger born out of unfulfilled desire’, which is the Gita’s “krodha”. Both these I am able to deal with fairly dispassionately. The anger that messes around with my head is the anger that is tinged with guilt, the anger born out of an undesirable situation which I feel I could have avoided if I had done something different. This consumes me, makes me obsess over it, leading me into the heart of Krishna’s ‘delusion’.

I want to reach that precious state where I am delivered from anger, desire, greed, intoxication, pride and jealousy; but first, I would like to be delivered from guilt.

Long songs

I discovered a cache of songs on a hard drive that I thought had given up the ghost many years ago, and spent a good part of the day listening to songs that were my favorites at some point in time over the last ten years. I realized something about my own taste in music from this random walk down memory lane. For short songs, which I define as less than five minutes long, my opinion about a song’s merits is governed primarily by its lyrics. But if I make a list of songs that I can listen to again and again and lose myself in the music, there is a strong skew towards really long songs. I think it’s very challenging to create real emotion in music, and the longer the song, the more a musician can do with it to make it memorable.

As a whim, here is a list of five long songs, picked somewhat randomly.

1. Private Investigations, 7 mins
Dire Straits. The beauty of their music is Mark Knopfler’s ability to create atmosphere with music, of which I think this song is the best example. I can never hear this sing without remembering the entire genre of film noir and Raymond Chandler. For about a minute at the end, there’s a really lovely instrumental section that actually communicates more than the lyrics do.

2. Echoes, 23 mins
Pink Floyd. The plink in the beginning is very famous, and the album on which this song features – Meddle – is the most satisfactory of their albums for me. Again an atmospheric song. Reminds me of Arthur C Clarke and Moby Dick. In my opinion, it’s the only good science fiction song (actually, it’s the only science fiction song I have heard, discounting the psychedelic Gong).

3. Saqia Aur Pila, 27 mins
Sabri Brothers. I love their music – they are a pair of Pakistani Qawwali singers, one tall and intense, the other fat and cheerful. This song is sublime. There’s a ten minute version on YouTube but the real deal is longer. It starts off with a patron asking a barman to pour him more liquor, and after an incredible journey through Islamic philosophy and history, ends with Hussain’s martyrdom in Karbala, when you realize the liquor is a metaphor for something quite different.

4. Into The Woods: Introduction, 29 mins
Stephen Sondheim. While this is usually split up into 4 songs in most CDs, if you watch the musical, it’s one contiguous, polyphonous masterpiece. The musical is a fairytale retelling, and this piece introduces all the characters – Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Jack, the witch, the Baker, and all their families. Tour De force, especially the way Sondheim creates a distinct style for each singer but they fuse so well. Polyphony at its best.

5. Die Walkure, 5 hours
Wagner. The Ring Cycle is my favorite western classical music, and Wagner is really the heavy metal of the genre. The cycle is a set of four operas that are the complete telling of a legend about a ring, which ends with the destruction of the world. Die Walkure is the second opera and contains the famous Ride of the Valkyries section.

Corruption by the book

Since I also work in education, I get to hear some real horror stories.

Do you know how the textbook purchasing routine usually goes in schools? Many school boards in India don’t mandate that you should buy a particular book; they mandate a particular syllabus, and schools are free to decide which books to buy, so long as they cover the syllabus. So in October-November each year, the textbook salesmen come calling. And (small wonder) when a school decides to pick a particular publisher, they get a cut of 30%  on the sales that are made to the school’s students.

Now, there’s no denying that a large number of schools are honest and their integrity is beyond reproach; however, the mere existence of such an incentive is potentially corrupting. And in India, where we are so inured to corruption that we ascribe every decision to it while not doing anything about it, the first reaction I get when I share this information with friends is, “What did you expect? — I’m not surprised”.

I was thinking about this factoid when I read about the Vadra-DLF deal that everyone was talking about a couple of weeks back. DLF’s rationale was perfectly acceptable from a legal perspective: the deal was one between two private entities, with no public money involved, and so the law has no jurisdiction to probe unless the Government was specifically defrauded. I agree. If anyone has a right to complain, it is the share-holders and debt-holders of DLF, who may ask why the company gave an interest-free loan to an individual instead of deploying the capital more effectively. And DLF can reply, with perfect legitimacy, that they gave this loan because they expected that this person, being closely related to other, powerful people, would be able to use his goodwill to bring intangible benefit to the company. So it was a good investment. And no one was defrauded.

The schools that textbook publishers pay off could argue likewise. They could say, we choose the best textbooks regardless of the incentives we get. And when we get an incentive, it does not go into our private purses, but into the school’s coffers. This serves to reduce the amount of money we need to recover from parents, keeping fees lower. Perhaps we are guilty of under-reporting this income while filing our taxes, but otherwise, there is no wrong-doing.

In my opinion, though, there is wrong-doing, if not in fact, then at least in principle. And there is corruption – if not in the people, then in the system, but corruption it is, nonetheless, even if it is not a particular individual who is benefiting from it.

When all institutions are created, they have a particular vision and a ‘business plan’. The ‘plan’ for a school is that it will take in students, provide them with the best education possible, and recover the cost of doing this by levying fees upon the beneficiaries, viz. the students (and their parents). If the parents feel that the school does not provide value for money in its education, they have the right to withdraw their wards from the school. If there is a broad tendency among parents to value quality in education, the schools that provide better education are likely to be more successful; if there is a broad tendency to value low-price in education, the schools ‘race to the bottom’; either way, the choice is the parents’ (and more broadly, society’s).

There are other schools that are run without a commercial motive; the ‘convent school’ is one example, where it is funded by a religious organization to provide subsidized education to children. However, in this case too, there is a broad understanding between the parents and the school – the understanding that, in exchange for providing the children education, the school also has the right to educate them about the school’s religion of choice, with the aim of increasing the religion’s influence in public life. And the school is funded by people who think that increasing the religion’s influence in public life is a good thing and a moral necessity.

The point is that these ‘social contracts’ are corrupted by the textbook publisher who offers a kickback to the school. I can imagine the case of two schools, one very good and the other rather mediocre. The bad school charges less than the good school, as it should; and because there is a segment of the population that wants low-cost instead of high-quality, both schools have an equilibrium level of students.

Now, however, supposing the bad school partners with a publisher to provide bad books to the students, but due to the publisher’s kickback, reduces fees even further (or perhaps even eliminates fees, so that parents ‘pay’ the school by buying schoolbooks instead). The contract is broken now — the parent expects the school to provide the best possible education for the fees they charge, but in this case, the school deliberately provides a poor education because of its desire to reduce fees.

The enemy of corruption, then, is to strive for quality. In every social contract — between the school and the parent, between the voter and the politician, between the shopkeeper and his customer — there is an underlying axiom – that the existence of the contract, the existence of the system, is for the ‘greater good’. The understanding is that an institution like a school or a Parliament, though strictly speaking an unnecessary system for human existence, nonetheless makes us a better society by being present.

Corruption is not just when an oily politician makes a kickback on a defence deal. Corruption is any instance when a social contract, which existed to make things better, is subverted to make things worse.

Here’s to the gentle ones

Here’s to the gentle ones, the patient, the meek, the givers-of-way, the yes-sayers, the followers.

Victory does not always come from prevailing. Here’s to the ones who do not push back, not because they cannot, but because, for any movement to happen, there must be force and there must be yielding. Many people think that victory is to move in the direction that they push in; the gentle ones know that victory is to move in the right direction, and they do not push.

Always in battle, there is more wisdom in knowing when to fight than in trying to win always. And the gentle ones too have likes, dislikes, fears and fixations. But they do not rejoice in imposing their will, because they know that everyone is imperfect, and likes and dislikes are born of passions and prejudices, and none of those is as important as other people are.

Here’s to the ones who take the long view, the kindly ones. In twenty years, the arguments will be forgotten, the disagreements will have long ceased to matter, and triumph and defeat will be doled out carelessly by indifferent Fortune; and if people remain in love, it goes not to the credit of the pushy ones, but the gentle ones.

When they make the effort to see things from someone else’s point of view, or when they give in so that someone else may derive a small satisfaction from forcing his own way in an inconsequential matter, they perform an act that many of us can never understand, and which few of us ever grow graceful in.

There’s no faintness in their hearts. They strive harder than the enterprising, seeking reward for everyone. They experience the pleasure of victory and the pain of defeat, but do not allow themselves to become bitter or vainglorious. They have their preferences about the company they keep, but they allow no one to feel the sting of their wrath or sarcasm or spite, though it be much deserved.

Eventually, they too will die, as everyone else will too. And though their names will not be on the pillars and the parchments and the history-books, what made all things possible is not the effort of the passionate, but the effort of the patient.

If you have met the gentle ones, treasure them, befriend them, and strive (however imperfectly) to emulate them. In any hundred people, there are no more than 4, perhaps 5, of them; but because they are, the world is.