There is a problem in being good. Or as Gurcharan Das asks in his book, The Difficulty of Being Good, On the Subtle Art of Dharma—“why be good?” The first time I questioned this basic premise that has been drilled into most “service class” people as we call ourselves was many years ago when the kid came back from school all beaten and scratched. She’d been hit. So why did you not complain? There was nobody around. Hit back? But you said good kids don’t hit others. The problem of being good.
So we were good and worked hard in school. We were good and got into all the right colleges. We were good at work and did well. We are good and consider ourselves apart from the system we inherited. The economic boom allowed a swathe of us the choice to disengage with the system of graft, connections and the web of bartered favours—if you use your designation to free me of this problem, I will get your niece in school, the principal is not a problem, I’ve done her lots of favours. If money was the currency of the corrupt, bartering “favours” became another currency of the morally corrupt. But a significant number chose not to engage with this system. If the opportunity came because of what you knew and could do and not because of who you were, the financial rewards came easily too. Tax-paid money soon became enough to target a basic level of wealth creation and lifestyle. And a whole generation got busy in enjoying the first fruits of mass economic freedom. The ability to think beyond the grind of pre-1991 India, of getting just the basics of milk, gas, power and water in place, was now here.
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We forgot about the good and the bad and hit the malls each weekend. Holidays every year were suddenly possible—sometimes even overseas. Sending the kids abroad after school was not just for the progeny of Indian Administrative Service officers who seemed to get all the available scholarships in college (remember that?). In the impatience to enjoy what was a dream to be lived only when we went to the movie halls to watch the year-old English flick in Chanakya cinema, we dealt with governance issues by throwing money at the problem. No public transport? Why, buy a car. Then two cars. Don’t like the government schools—pay up and go private. Don’t like government hospitals, pay up and go private. Don’t like tap water—pay up and get mineral water. Power, security, college. But we remained good citizens. Paid our taxes and then spent an equal amount in constructing our individual bubbles of infrastructure. We are good.
But I sense the next stage of this process is coming. The dissatisfaction with being good is very close at hand. The rising fumes of impatience are here again. The marginal utility of the fruits of the “being good” is decreasing as we are forced to look at the way those not “good” are appropriating the system, funding by us, for their private use and benefit. So blatantly. So brazenly. We did not want to engage with the system and build our bubbles. That felt good. But now the limit of that bubble is getting reached. The roads to run the cars are running out. The private schools are too crowded. As are the hospitals (why, even the drivers have mediclaim now). The municipal corporation we did not want to engage with and built our own garbage disposal system has got so corrupt and our anti-mosquito sprays so ineffective that the problem is pricking our bubbles. In the air we breathe, in the contaminated ground water we drink, in the thoughts we think. There are too many of us with the same money, education and needs for the bubble system to work for much longer.
Then, like everything else, there is the thread of money that runs through this emotion of “not good anymore”. In sheer zeros, the tax-paid amounts per year are amounting to huge numbers. If getting tax status to nil was possible two decades ago due to the smart chartered accountants, that is not possible anymore. The salaries have grown far too quickly for that. The lack of basic governance and the fact that we fund the government—directly and indirectly—through taxes, is making us feel not so good. The next pair of shoes is all very well, but the slush on the roads is something we need to think about now.
I’m not sure where this journey goes from here. Veterans of many institutional battles tell me that to take the system head-on is to offer yourself as cannon fodder.
But possibly there will be a way that uses this dissatisfaction with the way we are governed, using our own money, to make good again.
Monika Halan works in the area of financial literacy and financial intermediation policy and is a certified financial planner. She is editor, Mint Money and can be reached at email@example.com