Kanika Datta: Moral science for India Inc?


Kanika Datta

NEW DELHI: In the Catholic convent that I attended, believers were sent to Catechism classes twice a week. Us non-Catholics – the majority, actually – were herded into secular Moral Science classes run by a succession of alarmingly humourless nuns.

Moral Science classes weren’t, alas, a period-filling exercise. While the Catholics got to hear the much more entertaining stories from the Old and New Testaments, we were provided textbooks filled with grim rules and didactic tales (including a dubious one that suggested that George Washington became the United States of America’s first president because he never told a lie – imagine, a truthful politician). More significant from my point of view was the fact that we also had to sit for exams on the subject at the end of each term, so I was forced to take Moral Science seriously.

These many decades later, I still remember one of the key topics in those classes. It was titled “How To Be Good” and consisted of ten points that we were obliged to memorise: obey your parents and teachers, say your prayers, be neat, be polite, be truthful, study hard every day and so on (it was an easy ten marks in the end-of-term test).

The HTBGs were patently a wish list, intended to produce model students and children, perhaps because these strictures were rowdily observed mostly in the breach. Certainly, any HTBG rule that was followed was the result of the fell hand of Authority rather than any appreciation of the science of morality on my part.

The HTBGs came to mind as a result of the release by the indefatigable Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) of a Code of Ethics for its 8,500 members. The timing was opportune, of course, given the vocal media-cum-middle class indignation over corruption in public life; it was unwittingly spot-on given anti-corruption crusader Baburao Hazare’s 24-hour metamorphosis from government-designated law-breaker to unwanted guest at Tihar Jail on Tuesday.

CII’s Code of Ethics, Adi Godrej, CII’s president-designate, told reporters in Chennai, were a “self-regulatory benchmark for transparent and clean corporate governance for its member companies”. In other words, it was an HTBG code for corporate India. Instead of ten, this Code of Ethics had an eight-point charter of good practices. What are these?

(i) Conducting business in national interest,

(ii) maintaining ethics and integrity,

(iii) adhering to values,

(iv) ensuring transparency and openness,

(v) avoiding corrupt practices,

(vi) promoting competition and competitors,

(vii) following and respecting the code and, finally,

(viii) encouraging whistle-blowers.

Like the HTBGs of my Moral Science classes, CII’s Code of Ethics is certainly unexceptionable in content. Unlike juvenile HTBGs, however, this Code is not a wish list – or it shouldn’t be. After all, isn’t this how business should be run as a matter of course?

Surely abjuring a corporation to “maintain ethics and integrity” should be unnecessary?

The very fact that the chair of CII’s Task Force on Transparency and Integrity in Governance thought it timely to remind its member-institutions of the most basic ethics of doing business is telling. It suggests that many businesses in India may not be run on ethical lines for a variety of reasons, induced or voluntary.

It certainly ties in with the depressing fact that, despite 20 years of economic liberalisation, India is considered one of the most corrupt countries in which to do business. Inasmuch as these global rankings mean anything at all, India’s rank on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index has remained depressingly in the high eighties out of 180 countries since 2007 and its score has deteriorated from 3.5 on 10 to 3.3.

The interesting point about these indices is that they are built on 13 source surveys from institutions like World Bank, IMD (Switzerland), Freedom House Foundation and so on. On a scale of one to 10, India’s highest score is 3.9 awarded by Bertelsmann Foundation on the parameter “government’s capacity to punish and contain corruption”. The lowest score at 2.6 is Freedom House’s score on “implementation of anti-corruption initiatives” (a pointer to the fate of the Lok Pal Bill, perhaps?).

These are certainly demoralising statistics for a country demanding a place on the high table of global politics and finance. But perhaps they are as effective an indicator of the ethics vacuum in public life as the decision to give high net worth individuals who paid the Government of India their taxes a “Rashtriya Samman” award.

Tax-paying is required by law; what is the need to reward someone for following the law?

Equally, when corporations write promos saying they follow ethical practices, you often wonder whether they’re protesting too much. Indeed, when people become popular heroes mainly by virtue of being non-corrupt, you know there’s something deeply rotten in the state of India.

(Well-known column writer Kanika Datta is associated with Business Standard)

(Sourced from Business Standard)

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