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Monday, August 8, 2011

Values, a luxury not a choice

A couple of weeks back I was trying to go home from work around 8pm and it was raining like crazy. It took me a whole hour to find a cabbie who would agree to take me home. I kid you not, a full 60 minutes – during which I walked all across Nariman Point and even reached Churchgate, fully drenched despite the umbrella. People who have lived in Mumbai can appreciate how hard it gets to find a cab when its raining. When I finally did find a cab, I promptly began venting about how Mumbai cabbies act like crooks when it comes to taking on passengers, especially when its raining (FYI, the law states that a cabbie cannot refuse a passenger irrespective of where he/she wants to go). I was righteously indignant, but he said something that shut me up. He said,

“Sir, rules are rules, but a man has to look out for himself. If I try to be a sincere guy and take you home to Wadala when its pelting, I will probably not find another customer there for hours. I still have to pay a flat Rs. 400 to my seth for a 12 hour shift because I don't own the car. But you will not pay me a paisa more than the meter fare, will you?”

“Or, fording through waterlogged roads, maybe my rundown old cab will break down. Will you walk away unconcerned, or will you try and help me get it repaired? Or do you think there is a government department or an insurance company who will help me out if my car breaks down in the rains?”

“On a more elementary level, every day of my life is spent trying to scrounge out as much money as possible. There is a wife and kids and parents and siblings all waiting back home for me to earn some money so that they can live. Sure I would like to be the ideal cabbie who is honest and upright and stands up to his customers – who wouldn’t – but do I have the luxury of putting values ahead of money? “

It was compelling logic. If you put values ahead of selfish gains, your kids wont be able to afford even a half-baked education back in the village. If you die or something unfortunate befalls you, no government will give a damn for your family. It’s a wild wild world, and each man has to look out for himself.

And that is a large part of the problem we face in countries like India. Too many people are running their lives six feet from the edge, desperately trying to make a life out of the deal fate has handed them. Can you or I afford to lecture them on values? Sure there is rapid economic growth. But that is far too often distorting the wealth equation than resolving socio-economic issues for the unfortunate millions. Having started from abject poverty, this country is rapidly morphing, and wealth is being created within the span of years, even months, instead of lifetimes. While millions watch from the sidelines, unable to participate. Those with half a chance – like the cabbies who rejected me – are racing as hard as they can trying to make ends meet. Perhaps the land of Gandhi does not have the luxury to value values in today’s circumstances.

Sure you might say everybody has a choice. And I am sure there are many in this great land who continue to uphold values above many other things in life. But I don't think you or I have the right to judge the rest very harshly.

PS: I have been thinking about Values a little bit lately. There are some interesting themes to cover in business values too. Will cover them soon.

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