Deep-seated graft and related crime has been a subject matter for many Hindi movies. Many of these end with a bunch of intrepid fighters of the system exposing the incumbent club of the powerful—politicians, police and bureaucrats are the usual suspects—resulting in either incarceration, or a public killing while the public applauds. The events of the past 10 days look almost like a movie script playing out as the government cracks down on a network of government officials, middlemen and companies that traffics information. But as those suspected were led away, there was no crowd of applauding public. I wonder if the missing applause is because the cynical public thinks that these guys will get away or is it because it finds its own moral fibre stretched?
I’m watching Jolly LLB (and if you write columns as a profession, you can’t just watch anything without the brain firing away and looking for raw material to chew on for future work) and as the movie me-lords its way to the end, where the small town guy wins against the corrupt five-star lawyer and against his own initial lower morality, I thought I saw a pattern. The last few years have seen several movies with this theme—the moral choices faced by an average guy in a country where the elite are complicit in a deeply corrupt nation—of choosing between staying with middle class values or joining the system of corruption. Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year was about doing business the right way against the established system of cheating the customer and bribing to get corporate business. Do Dooni Chaar was about a lower middle-class teacher overcoming temptation to do the right thing.
Imagine this: there is a large hospital chain of national scale. Doctors are salaried employees and they’re found to be prescribing medical products that are harmful to their patients. They recommend these products as they carry higher kick-backs from the drug companies. For example, they prescribe drugs that are known to cause sugar in diabetics to rise — not very different from bankers who sell life insurance products to those above age 60. They recommend expensive muscle enhancers instead of multi-vitamin to economically weaker patients suffering from poor nutrition, not very different from selling sector funds to fisherfolk who come looking for a bank deposit. What would you say if the regulatory authority that oversees hospitals said this: “If there was negligence in the medical care, we are responsible, but correct drugs are the responsibility of the drug makers – it is not our problem. Go to the drug regulator.”
If you drive down from Chennai to Pondicherry, it is not unusual to see a furry, beaked head poking out over a high wall, looking quizzically at the world go by the yard in which it lives. The six-feet bird came as an import from Australia and, unknowingly, became a part of a multi-crore scam in Tamil Nadu that defrauded hundreds of thousands of people. Emu farming promised super normal returns – invest in emu chicks, they get fat on your money and are then sold for their meat and oil, doubling or tripling your initial money. Sounds far-fetched? It may to you, but some Rs.500 crore of real retail money bought the scheme. It isn’t as if people only in the south are gullible; 1,600 kms north of Chennai, in West Bengal, an even larger bunch of people at the bottom of the pyramid collected every rupee they could and invested in real estate deals, teak farms and in products as bizarre as potato bonds that offered to double money in a short time. And it isn’t as if it is the rural poor that are gullible, Indians in urban areas have got burnt taking online surveys or trusting their money to a stock guru for multi-bagger rewards. One newspaper report (http://bit.ly/15TnxY8) puts the size of fraudulent deposit-taking schemes just in West Bengal at Rs.70,000 crore. There is no estimate for the size of the problem across the country but we can conjecture that it will be in trillions and not billions.
If Hollywood movies and interactions as tourists make us believe that all Americans speak like Californians and live in Manhattan, then the urban mass affluent Indians who reach US shores confuse them about who the real Indian is—the poor child with a tear in one eye they see in the ad asking for donation or this suave businessman negotiating hard for his company? Four months is long enough for an outsider to get an inside view. And when this time has the good fortune of being filled with some of the best academic minds, think tank experts, government and military officials and interaction with locals, you begin to tear through the facade of impressions and perceptions formed by more limited interactions and see behind the veil. My stint as a World Fellow at Yale got me to shift several worldviews. There are two at the moment that stand out and are possibly worth your attention.
Why aren’t people out there on the street, burning a bus or something?” I’ve been asking this question for almost as long as it took me to absorb the fact that the generation going to be worse off than their parents, for the first time since the 1930s depression, seemed to be calmly living the crumbling American dream,watching a tiny group of rich incumbents feed off the system. One in six is poor in America. One per cent of the rich have a net worth more than the bottom 90% together. Real wages have remained almost stagnant while productivity has gone up. Worse, from 1985 to 2005, 80% of the wage increase went to the top 1% of population. No wonder more and more young people are living with their parents than ever before because they can’t afford housing and have no jobs or have low-paying jobs. “And you’re not angry?” I’ve been obsessively asking.
It’s been three weeks since I left home. Three weeks since I stitched together another reality in a different country, with different people using Skype and Gtalk as a way to keep the thread of my other reality going. Three weeks that saw two natural disaster events in the US—an earthquake that I did not feel because the bus was trundling around a bend. And a hurricane that left New Haven, Connecticut, largely untouched though Fox News did try its very best to panic those not panicked. I found myself filling water and buying candles after watching the panic-stricken anchors. Three weeks that had India emerge from middle-class stupor, a hunger strike, partly erudite debates in a Parliament that worked on a Saturday into uncharted territory where nobody really knows what will happen next—the existing rules look fuzzy. And three weeks at the end of which, the world is pretty much where it was when I stepped off it for a while.